Have you ever been confused by the book of Revelation? Forgive me, that’s a silly question. For most Christians, that’s like asking if they’ve ever breathed or asking Packers fans if they’ve ever grown frustrated with the team’s recent inability to win NFC Championship games with Aaron Rodgers under center. Revelation’s unfamiliar imagery and prophetic messages perplex readers across the globe, but it’s especially the case in Western churches. Many Christians assume they’ll never understand the book and shy away from it because of the fear and anxiety it raises in the heart and mind. I know that was true of me.
As you can imagine, Revelation has a wide range of possible interpretations and viewpoints. If you’ve read the study notes in your Bible, you’ve likely heard of the preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist interpretations. Maybe you’ve also heard of the pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation debate or the differing views of the millennium. These are good, important discussions to have. And while I don’t believe God will judge us based on our interpretation of the book, I do believe that we have a responsibility to seek out its God-given meaning to move past confusion & disheartenment and into encouragement, boldness, and strength for faithful witness. That’s the journey I’d like to invite you into today.
The purpose of this essay is to dive into eschatology, which is simply the study of end times. Specifically, you and I are going to examine a few of the core pillars, remove common stumbling blocks, and pull each other out of any ditches we’ve fallen into. Most of our attention will be on the book of Revelation, but we’ll also visit other important eschatological passages. We’ll start by laying out a framework for reading Revelation, followed by the four interpretations of the book and a discussion of the Millennium (including two related New Testament passages) before closing with the three core messages of Revelation.
God’s Word has a lot to say about the end times, and I hope that by the end of our time together, you’ll find hope in what He has said and that Revelation will be a book of continual comfort and refreshment for you. I pray that you will experience the same comfort and assurance of the Holy Spirit reading this essay as I have experienced studying for and writing it. I’m so grateful you’re here. If you’re ready, let’s get started.
My Journey with Revelation
In all my journeys through Revelation, I’ve always been perplexed by 1:3 and 22:7. 1:3 makes a declaration: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.” Likewise, 22:7 quotes Jesus as saying, “Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
I’ve read these passages many times, and they have always tripped me up. What on earth did it mean to keep the words of the prophecy? The call to “keep” its words means that I must respond, but how? I read chapters 2 and 3 and did my best to not abandon my first love to Christ and to not slip into the casual gospel life of the lukewarm Laodiceans, but when the visions began at the start of chapter 4, I was lost. The visions and their meaning appeared so intimidating and the path of personal application so foggy that I feared it was impossible to attain the blessing promised to those who read, hear and keep the prophecy.
I was further confused by the various interpretations which exist in the ether of our culture. Most notably, I had heard of this thing called the rapture where the church would supposedly get taken out of the world by Jesus leaving behind those who weren’t in the community of faith. While I didn’t see Biblical backing for this, I chose a posture of interpretive apathy since it just seemed too hard to figure out.
From this apathetic end-times posture, I would still try to glean spiritual nourishment from John’s revelation. I would find encouragement in the conquest of the devil and hope in the New Creation. I’d gloss over the judgments since I felt like I could never understand what was being described (locusts in the shape of horses with a blend of male, female, and lion-like features sound like a character out of a nightmare). Beyond that, my ignorant exposure to ideas about The Rapture and dispensationalist teaching had me thinking that these events were still to come. Which, naturally, produced a certain kind of anxious watchfulness where Revelation was interpreted through modern-day events. I never fully bought into this idea, but I didn’t have the proper understanding to completely avoid this interpretive ditch.
But then, over a few months, it occurred to me that I needed to invest the time and effort to develop an eschatology based on historic Christian orthodoxy and a faithful reading of the text. If it was true—as David Campbell says—that your eschatology affects everything, it was essential that I seek understanding in this area. And if it’s true for me, then it’s true for everyone. Hence, this essay.
One other event triggered the essay you now hold in your hands. As this stirring was going on, I returned home for Christmas and surveyed my mom’s bookshelf and saw After the Rapture: An End Times Guide to Survival by David Jeremiah. While I’ve never read the book, I could easily imagine what the book talked about. “Mom…where’d you get this book?” Browsing the Christian bookstore, she said. Huh, interesting. “Is Mom a dispensationalist?” I wondered. And at that moment, I realized that I was completely incapable of explaining dispensationalism, refuting its incorrect teachings, or presenting the correct view. I got to work a few days later. This essay is the product of that journey.
Through my study and writing, I’ve grown fond of Revelation and have regularly returned to it as a source of hope, encouragement, pruning, and instruction. While this essay won’t include everything I’ve learned, I’ll seek to distill things down into the major ideas and present them in a way so that you too can grow not only in understanding but also in love and devotion to the Lord.
That’s been my journey. Are you ready to start yours?
How most people read Revelation
Last Christmas, I had the chance to read letters written between my late grandparents before they were married. Thanks to my grandma’s refusal to throw anything away, the letters survived more than 60 years and allowed us to learn more about the early days of their relationship.
The most memorable letter was a deep, heartfelt apology from my grandpa. For what, we had no clue. He didn’t say. But we sure tried to figure it out. “Do you think he cheated on her?” we wondered. No, Grandma wouldn’t have gotten back with him if he did that. “Maybe he stood her up for a date?” It seemed unlikely, but possible. “Maybe he offended one of her parents or got caught up in some business he shouldn’t have been in?” We’ll never know for sure, as the details now rest with them in the grave. But we still have this letter from more than 60 years ago to teach us, guide us, and perhaps even instruct us in our relationships.
Reading this letter reminded me of a foundational, yet essential truth that we must remember when we read Scripture. The only way to faithfully read and understand this letter is to remember its context. Specifically, Grandpa wrote it to Grandma when they were both about 18 years old. And it wasn’t written in the time of Snapchat, TikTok, and awful fashion trends. It wasn’t written to me, and I had to read it with that in mind. Further, to truly understand this letter, I’ll need to read other letters, search through my grandparents’ scrapbooks, and talk to their surviving friends to gain further insight into what my grandpa did that required the letter. Only in searching these things out and approaching them from the right angle will I get anywhere close to a correct interpretation of the letter.
You likely see how this connects to our topic. It’s easy to misinterpret the Bible. I’ve done this more than I can remember in my 28 years! If I’ve learned anything through this, it’s that we must humbly approach the text individually and communally and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the meaning and help us apply it to our lives. Apart from Him, we’re simply doing secular literary criticism.
Before we dive into the book of Revelation (I promise we’ll get there), I want to lay out two important principles for our journey. They are:
1. The Bible was written for us, but not necessarily to us.
This is a critical distinction. Part of faithfully interpreting God’s Word is figuring out what is prescriptive and what is descriptive. Many passages exist to describe historical events and should not be applied in our lives. We must discern what merely tells the story of past events long ago and what holds prescriptive power in our lives today. All of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, and correction (even the genealogies), yes. But not all of Scripture carries a prescriptive application in your life. This is what I mean when I say that the Bible was written for us, but not necessarily to us.
2. We must seek out authorial intent.
Many believers have been taught to read the Bible and ask, “What is this verse saying to me?”. In my youth group days, this was called SOAP-ing (a 4-step process of scripture, observation, application, and prayer). These protocols have their place. If a passage is prescriptive, figuring out what God is saying to you through a passage is helpful and should be done as you grow in Christlikeness. But this approach can easily be taken too far. Often, modern Christians do what we’ll call “Me-Dominant Hermeneutics” and miss what the author was saying because we don’t consider the broader context (audience, date, socio-political context, religious background of the author and audience, and more). Instead of trying to place ourselves in Grandma’s shoes, we read the letter like Grandpa wrote it to us and wildly miss the point.
Misinterpretation through Me-Dominant Hermeneutics
To understand how Me-Dominant Hermeneutics hurts our interpretation of the Bible, let’s explore the first two verses of Revelation, which read:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw.”Revelation 1:1-2
This seems like a pretty familiar New Testament introduction. While you might not understand the reason why John opens with such a formal statement, it isn’t out of alignment with other New Testament literature. That alone causes most people (including myself) to zoom past this verse and miss the critical context getting set up here. Let me explain.
One of the major themes of the entire New Testament is that Israel’s prophetic hope is fulfilled in Jesus and the Church. Everything Israel hoped for was embodied in Jesus. He is the Messiah. This is obvious from the first verse of Matthew all the way to the end of the book, but we often fail to recognize this since most of us are Gentiles (non-Jews) without the Hebraic ancestry as the Apostles and Jewish believers. As we embark on our study of Revelation, we must know that scholars have identified more than 500 allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation’s 404 verses. That’s about 1.25 Old Testament allusions per verse! Sound the alarm bells, because this tells us something very important. Something that if we don’t grasp, we will fail to understand this letter. Namely, the only way to properly understand Revelation is to read it in the context of its Old Testament roots. If we don’t read it in its proper context, we’ll treat it like a wacky sci-fi novel and totally miss the point (or fall into the ditch of dispensationalism—more on that later).
John wastes no time drawing from the Old Testament. In fact, 1:1-2 finds its root back in Daniel 2. In this passage, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a troubling dream. He asks his astrologers, magicians, and sorcerers to tell him his dream and the interpretation, which they fail to do. Daniel—a Jewish exile and servant of Nebuchadnezzar—supernaturally receives the vision & interpretation. He then relates it to the king as Daniel 2:27-29,44-45 reports:
“Daniel answered in the presence of the king, and said, ‘The secret which the king has demanded, the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, and the soothsayers cannot declare to the king. But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream, and the visions of your head upon your bed, were these: As for you, O king, thoughts came to your mind while on your bed, about what would come to pass after this; and He who reveals secrets has made known to you what will be’…’And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever. Inasmuch as you saw that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold—the great God has made known to the king what will come to pass after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation is sure.'” (emphasis mine)
In Mystery Explained, David Campbell points out that John intentionally uses this Danielic passage to frame up the entire letter. For example, the Greek translation of Daniel 2 contains the Greek word for “revealed” five times, the word for “show” twice, and the phrase “what must come to pass” three times. Also of importance, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where all three words and phrases show up together. The similarity is that these are the same words John uses in 1:1-2, which should tell us that John is intentionally drawing a correlation to make three important points.
First, John highlights that this is a revelation. In the same way that God revealed to King Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel future events, God has revealed something about Jesus Christ to John as well. He’s now going to share it with the churches
Second, the Greek word for “show” is semaino, which John uses to show that the content of the revelation is symbolic. Think of semaino similarly to our English word “semiotic,” which is the study of symbolic meaning. For example, when you see a curved checkmark, you think “Nike.”
By saying that God gave the revelation of Jesus Christ to show (semaino) His servants, John makes it clear that the contents of the letter cannot be understood literally. We must discover the meaning of the symbols and interpret the book in that manner. Nebuchadnezzar’s vision was symbolic of four future kingdoms—the final being the kingdom of God which would consume all other kingdoms and stand forever. In the same way, Revelation symbolically conveys truth. And the good news for us is that it’s all rooted in Old Testament literature.
Practically speaking, this means that our unconscious attempt to interpret Revelation through 24-hour news broadcasts is a dangerous proposition. That’s not to say God isn’t working through the events of history to refine His people and harden the hearts of others—He most certainly is. But we are not to read things into the text which God never intended to be there.
Third, John completes his allusion to Daniel with the phrase “things which must shortly take place”. This is similar, but not the exact phrase used in Daniel 2. This is no mistake. John does this intentionally to make an important point. In Daniel 2:28, Daniel tells the king that God has revealed things that would happen in the latter days. And as we already mentioned in the previous paragraph, the final event in the vision was the eternal establishment of God’s Kingdom on the earth which would crush all other kingdoms. As John begins Revelation, he intentionally modifies the language of Daniel’s prophecy and says that God has given this vision to show “things which must shortly take place.” As G.K. Beale points out, “What Daniel explicitly states will come to pass ‘in the latter days’ John rewords: these events will take place quickly or soon. These words do not connote the speedy manner in which the Daniel prophecy is to be fulfilled, nor the mere possibility that it could be fulfilled at any time, but the definite, imminent time of fulfillment, which likely has already begun in the present. What Daniel expected to occur in the last days, John is announcing as imminent, or beginning to occur in now” (Beale, 36). John interprets the events of Daniel 2 as having already begun with Christ’s resurrection. The “last days” in Daniel 2 are upon us! God’s Kingdom has been inaugurated through Jesus’ resurrection and will be fully realized at His Second Coming (of which Revelation has a lot to say).
Together, Revelation’s first two verses communicate two essential things to us. First, everything to follow is rooted in Old Testament Scriptures and any faithful interpretation must proceed from that principle. Second, John is announcing the arrival of the events Daniel expected to occur in the last days. The following visions not only concern the distant future but what is before us here and now. This Revelation of Jesus Christ is an ongoing, present reality that will ultimately find its fulfillment in Christ’s Second Coming, Final Judgment, and the establishment of the New Heaven and New Earth.
Before we leave this point, we should take a look at one more Danielic allusion found all the way in Revelation 22:10.
Sealed from Daniel, Revealed to the Church
In Daniel 12:9, the prophet is told, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.” In other words, “What I’ve shown you is not for today and its full interpretation is not for you to see this side of heaven. So don’t worry about it.” That had to be disappointing, don’t you think? Daniel has all these crazy experiences walking with the Lord and then at the end of his life is told that he’s not going to see the fulfillment of his prophecies. If I were Daniel, I probably would’ve thrown a little pity party and eaten a whole pint of Cookie Two-Step ice cream.
This remains the case for like 700 years until Revelation 22:10 where an angel tells John, “Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand.” Just as John pulled from Daniel 2 to open the book and lay out the proper framework for interpretation, John receives parting instructions based on but contrary to the instructions that Daniel received at the end of his life. Whereas Daniel was told that the prophecy would not yet see its fulfillment, John is told that the contents of his visions are “at hand”. They’ve already begun, and the time is now! This was true in John’s time, and it’s true of us now in the 21st Century. As you’ll hopefully learn throughout the rest of our journey together, this shouldn’t induce anxious speculation about whether you’ve missed the Lord’s Return but should instead produce the fruit of patient endurance, steadfastness, and faithful witness to Christ.
Before understanding these things, I always read Revelation as a book that described events that were shortly to take place from my point in history. This is what I mean when I say that we suffer from Me-Dominant Hermeneutics. If we read the text at face value, without considering that Grandpa wrote it to Grandma and that he didn’t have text message abilities, we’re going to fail to interpret the letter. And when we fail to interpret the letter, we find ourselves in all sorts of ditches and find it impossible to attain the promised blessing that comes through keeping the words of the prophecy.
We’ve covered a lot of ground already. We have more to go, so now’s a great time to drink some water, tighten your shoes, or enjoy the view. Because next up, we’re going to dive into the four schools of interpretation.
The 4 Ways of Interpreting Revelation
There are four primary schools of interpretation for the book of Revelation: preterist, historicist, futurist, and idealist. Let’s briefly talk about each.
First, the preterist (meaning “past”) view holds that all of the events of Revelation describe–you guessed it—past events. The preterist view maintains that everything described in Revelation occurred before or in 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This event was, of course, a fulfillment of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse Prophecy (Mt. 24:15-16; Mk 13:1-2,14-15; Lk 21:20-21) and holds real Biblical significance. But, this view is problematic for multiple reasons, one of which is why God would choose to include the book in the Bible if it contained zero relevance to Christians beyond 70 AD—considering the book was written sometime between 90-96 AD.
Second, the historicist view holds that the judgments of Revelation describe a series of seven significant historical events. Historicist interpreters disagree on exactly what those events are, but common interpretations include the decline of Rome, the rise of the papacy, and the Reformation. Each church of chapters 2-3 is interpreted to speak to the church of one of these time periods and the visions are taken to be the chronological unfolding of events throughout the church age and the sub-ages within. As mentioned, there is little agreement between historicist scholars on which events constitute the 7 time periods, and combined with its hyper-focus on the western church and the recent global expansion of the church, has led to a diminishment of this view—a victory for Biblical truth.
The third school of interpretation is the futurist view. Futurism’s viewpoint is in the name. While they accept that the letters of chapters 2-3 were written to seven actual churches, they hold that the visions of Revelation are meant for a later day. Futurists also tend to take the book literally, which turns the book into a kind of strange science-fiction narrative rather than a prophetic and pastoral letter firmly grounded in Old Testament narrative and prophecy. Futurism is also where the widely-held North American dispensational interpretation is rooted. Dispensationalism stems from a literal reading of Scripture that fails to see the church as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy of Israel. As we’ll discuss in a later section, dispensationalism is based on the belief that God has two covenant peoples: Israel with her earthly promises and the Church with her heavenly promises. While it’s true that God still has a last-days plan for the Jewish people (Romans 11), Revelation is a book written to and for the Church. All throughout the book, God reveals the many ways in which the end times prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah have been inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Christ and all allusions to Israel in the book are symbols of the Church, which is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophetic hope.
The fourth and final school of interpretation is the idealist viewpoint—the one we’ll adopt for the rest of this essay. Personally, I hate the name. But please, don’t let the name deter you. The idealist view firmly holds that the visions of Revelation speak of literal events, but that they must be interpreted symbolically to be understood. Where futurists scan the news looking for the signs of the end & issuing eery warnings on Facebook, idealists stand firm on the overarching message of Revelation that God’s Kingdom has come through Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension and that God will remain faithful to His people while we experience promised tribulation between Christ’s first and second coming. Idealism is often critiqued for the way it makes everything in Revelation spiritual, but that is not the case. Rather, idealism holds that the symbolic portrayal of events in the book will show up in tangible, real-world ways. These events have already begun and are an ongoing reality we all live in. Christ has come and continues to come in judgment against unrighteousness. Christians are preserved through it, even as some are martyred for their devotion to Christ.
As you settle into your particular view of Revelation, it’s important to think about how time works in Revelation. As we’ll discuss in the next section, the events of Revelation aren’t presented in the linear fashion we’re used to, and this makes a world of difference when interpreting the various events.
How time works in Revelation
Think for a moment of a working clock. What’s the one thing that the clock always does? That’s right, it moves forward. With each second or minute, the clock moves forward. This is the way of the world, the way God set it up. Our lives are linear, and we are all created to dwell in the finiteness of forward-marching time. Only the Triune God is outside of time.
This pattern touches all aspects of our existence. Our books tell compelling chronological narratives, movies follow a linear sequence towards its climax, our calendars remind us of what’s happened and what’s to come, and our thoughts bounce between the three buckets of time: past, present, and future. The systems we’ve created reinforce this chronological nature. Our education system, for example, incrementally progresses students from one grade to the next. And after school, many find themselves trying to climb the “corporate ladder”—a step-by-step progression for one’s career.
With so much of our life being linear, it’s natural to approach Scripture with a chronological mindset. But if we want to faithfully interpret Revelation, we need to let go of our chronological worldview and adopt one that fits its genre.
Revelation combines three genres: apocalyptic, prophetic, and epistolary. It is a discussion of the end times (apocalyptic), a call to present-day faithfulness and a forecast of events to come (prophetic), and an encouragement for believers of the entire church age facing very real trials (epistolary—think epistle). Apocalyptic and prophetic literature doesn’t always follow the conventions of a normal story, and we must keep this in mind when reading any literature in these genres.
In my personal readings of Revelation, I had always read the book chronologically. This, of course, makes the book very confusing and it’s no wonder why many teachers feel the need to create complex diagrams like Dale in Horrible Bosses to map out what’s going to happen. But, this is made much simpler through a concept called recapitulation, which teaches that Revelation often describes the same event or series of events multiple times from different perspectives. As David Campbell writes, “Revelation portrays four sets of seven judgments brought by God on an unbelieving world during the church age. The trumpets are the second of these sets (seals, trumpets, visions of conflict, and bowls). All four describe the same series of events, but from slightly different perspectives.” If you’re having trouble understanding this, I’ve found it helpful to think of the judgments as scenes from the same movie which all relate the same event from the perspective of multiple characters.
Each series of judgments depicts real events that have happened and are continuing to happen during the church age and serve a dual purpose: refining believers by testing their faith and hardening the hearts of unbelievers who continue to refuse to repent despite the evidence of God’s disapproval of their sin. Each series of judgments ends with the “eternal and consummated reign of God…with Christ ruling beside him”. This is an essential point to understand Revelation, one we’ll cover in greater depth in our next section as we discuss the millennium.
The Millennium: Post-, Pre-, A-
The topics we’ve discussed so far are essential for developing a healthy interpretation of Revelation. Choosing a school of interpretation (hopefully idealist) gives you a framework for seeing the book as a whole. Understanding recapitulation helps you make sense of the events of the book. This is also true when it comes to interpreting the millennium, found in Revelation 20.
A millennium is simply one thousand years. Biblically, The Millennium refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ portrayed in Revelation 20. In this vision, John sees that the devil is bound from deceiving the nations in the bottomless pit for one thousand years (20:1-3). Then, the “faithful martyrs” join Jesus to reign with Him for 1,000 years (20:4). The “rest of the dead” remain dead until the end of the 1,000 years (20:5). Verse 6 then reveals that the “rest of the dead” refers to the deceased lost (which means that the martyrs of verse 4 represent all believers throughout history who have remained faithful to Christ and trusted Him alone for their salvation). The millennium closes with four events: 1) Satan is released for a massive final rebellion, 2) the rebellion is ultimately swallowed up by fire out of heaven, 3) the devil is cast into the eternal lake of fire, and 4) the Final Judgment.
Needless to say, a lot happens in this chapter. When interpreting it, we must remember two important things. First, Revelation must be interpreted through a symbolic lens. This has been true from 1:1 and doesn’t suddenly change in chapter 20. Second, we must keep in mind our prior discussion of recapitulation. Revelation is not a chronological blueprint of events to come, but a series of visions that portray the same general series of events from different perspectives. This leads us to the following conclusion: The Millennium is the church age. Satan’s binding happened through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Satan was once allowed to make accusations against us to God but is now cast out and limited in his deceptive ability. The church age will end with a large rebellion against God led by the devil, but Christ will be victorious. Our job is to be faithful unto death—whether a natural death or martyrdom.
The position I’ve just introduced is called Amillennialism and was the position put forward by Saint Augustine in his City of God. Ultimately, you will have to make your own decision on the millennium; I’m simply your guide. With that, I’d like to introduce you to the three common viewpoints of the millennium: postmillennialism, premillennialism, and amillennialism. We’ll start with postmillennialism.
Postmillennialists believe that Christ will return after an indeterminately long period of churchwide prosperity and advancement. This position holds that the end of the church age will be characterized by the church’s prosperous advancement in which its influence will greatly extend, to the point that some postmillennialists have believed that there would be no unsaved people left on the earth when Christ comes again.
Postmillennialism is a very optimistic position, but optimism isn’t a signal of Biblical truth. For example, this view requires a preterist understanding of chapters 6-19 (viewing the judgments and tribulation as things that will happen before the millennium) to get around the very obvious promises of ongoing tribulation and persecution for believers in the church age. As such, postmillennialism is only held by a small minority of Reformed teachers and Biblical scholars today.
Premillennialism, on the other hand, takes chapter 20 literally. Premillennialists are usually futurists, which means that they believe that the events starting with chapter 4 are yet to happen because Christ’s rapture of believers (which they believe to take place between the end of chapter 3 and the start of chapter 4) has not yet occurred. A premillennial reading of chapter 20 concludes that towards the tail end of the tribulation (a period they believe is still yet to come), Christ will return to rapture the Church and begin a literal one thousand-year reign on the earth in which Satan is barred from deceptive influence, ultimately leading to his destruction in the lake of fire (20:7-10) and the Final Judgment (20:11-15).
There are two premillennial “camps”: classical/historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. To better understand the overall position and its errors, I’ll briefly explain both.
Classical premillennialists view chapter 20 as the continuation of the great battle of chapter 19 which depicts Christ leading the heavenly army to victory over the beast, false prophet, and the lost, resulting in the destruction of all three. Classical premillennialism then inserts a one-thousand-year earthly rule of Christ between the end of this battle and the final consummation of history. Common sense, of course, leads to a series of questions. As David Campbell asks, “Why is there need for such an intermediate state? How could there be a further rebellion of the nations when Christ himself is ruling from an earthly throne, and when only the saved enter the millennium, the lost having been destroyed at the end of chapter 19?”. It doesn’t make sense that God would press pause for 1,000 years before bringing world history to a close, but I will concede that the classical premillennialist view is less harmless in its practical implications than that of the other premillennial camp, dispensational premillennialism.
More commonly known as dispensationalism, this form of premillennialism is by far the most common form around today. Before we get started, this view did not exist until 1830, when a Scottish woman had a vision of a secret rapture of Christ which was discovered by popular Bible teacher John Nelson Darby. Darby then used the vision as evidence that God had two covenant people—Israel and the Church—and would deal with them differently! Again, the dispensational view did not exist for the first 1800 years of the church and is based on a vision! Like Mormonism, Islam, and many other groups which use extra-Biblical revelation as the basis for their divergent doctrines, we must remember Paul’s words to the Galatian church when considering dispensationalism’s claims: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed”.
Nonetheless, dispensationalism’s popularity—easily observed by the number of books on the Rapture in the End Times section of your local bookstore—requires us to talk about it. The viewpoint starts with a presumed secret rapture of the church between the end of chapter 3 and the start of chapter 4. This is important. There is no mention of a rapture anywhere in Revelation. It’s read into the text based on dispensational interpretations of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and Matthew 24:38-41. Personally, I get exhausted trying to read, understand, and relate the complicated teaching of dispensationalism, but I’ll do my best. Dispensationalism believes that once Christ raptures the church out of the world, ethnic Israel will be restored to the promised land (this is why many modern-day Christians celebrate any positive developments for the nation of Israel). In addition to being restored to the promised land, dispensationalism assumes that a temple will be rebuilt and the Jewish sacrificial system will be put back in place. This, of course, directly contradicts Hebrews 10:9 which tells us that Jesus “takes away the first [the sacrificial system] that He may establish the second [the New Covenant in Christ’s blood].” Then, the dispensational view awaits a great 7-year tribulation (based on an incorrect interpretation of Daniel 9:27) that is described from 4:1 through 19:11. After this 7-year tribulation, Christ is believed to return to destroy the beast and false prophet (who came to deceive God’s first covenant people), inaugurate a one thousand year reign on earth during which Satan is bound. While all this is going on, the previously-raptured church exists in the New Jerusalem which hovers above the earth. Members of the rapture are thought to occasionally visit the earth (for what reason, I don’t know) and despite Christ ruling, some children of saved believers rebel, requiring a final battle against the devil and his forces which Christ ultimately wins. Clear as mud, eh?
As you might have picked up, dispensational theology reads things into the book of Revelation. Again, I’ll emphasize: the rapture is never mentioned in Revelation (and as we’ll soon discover, anywhere in Scripture). And with that in mind, I’d like us to briefly turn to two critical New Testament eschatological passages that inform our readings of Biblical end-times teaching.
Other New Testament Eschatology
In the world of Biblical interpretation, the Latin phrase analogia fidei (“The Analogy of Faith”) is the principle that we should interpret difficult passages with clear passages found elsewhere in the Bible. Or, as Sam Storms says, “Sound hermeneutical procedure would appear to demand that we interpret the singular and obscure in the light of the plural and explicit.” For example, a dispensational premillennial reading of Revelation 20 takes it to mean there will be a literal one-thousand-year reign of Christ after His Second Coming despite no clear evidence of this found elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, dispensationalism seems to directly contradict much of what the New Testament has to teach about Jesus’ Second Coming.
While this essay isn’t the place for a comprehensive analysis of New Testament end-times teaching, I do want to help us better understand two oft-cited eschatological passages concerning “The Rapture” before concluding with a discussion of what I believe is the correct viewpoint of the millennium.
Matthew 24: These Things and The End of the Age
One of the two core passages dispensationalists use to “prove” a secret premillennial rapture of the church comes from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24 (also Mark 13 and Luke 21). These passages are known for their difficulty, but I want to encourage you to not be discouraged and give up. By the Spirit and through earnest study (the two work together quite well!), it’s possible to come to an understanding. I believe it’s essential that we do.
As with any attempt to interpret Scripture, we need to first note the larger context of Matthew 24. Sam Storms points out in Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, “Much of the confusion over what Jesus said comes from the artificial chapter divisions in our English Bibles. Instead of beginning with Matthew 24:1, we need to back up into chapter 23 and take note of his scathing denunciation of the religious leaders of his day.” Matthew 24 flows out of a series of strong rebukes from Jesus. He denounces the religious leaders and calls them hypocrites before issuing a final warning of judgment in Matthew 23:37-39. Jesus then leads His disciples out of the temple and they, seemingly taken aback by this series of events, ask Him to elaborate.
The disciples, seemingly taken aback by Jesus’ rebuke, show Him the temple to which He prophesies its destruction (Mt 24:1-2). Understandably confused, His disciples privately approached Him and asked, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”. Jesus responds. To understand Jesus’ response, you must know that He’s discussing two sets of events here: 1) the prophesied judgment of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple and 2) His Second Coming, or parousia.
Jesus begins by addressing their first question, when “these things” (the destruction of the temple) will happen. He warns them of the deception and lays out the conditions that would lead to the prophecy’s fulfillment in AD 70. The intervening period would include false Christs, “wars and rumors of wars” and “famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places”, and more. But he’s also quick to tell his disciples to not be troubled by these things, because “the end is not yet.” He’s telling them not to be deceived into believing that those events were harbingers of the temple’s immediate destruction. In other words, He’s telling the disciples to not try to find symbolic meaning in every military clash, earthquake, or difficult period on the earth (that seems awfully relevant to our modern world). Rather that there would be a single sign (the abomination of desolation, v. 15) that would point to the impending judgment. Without getting into too much detail, that sign is believed by most scholars to either be a desecration of the temple by the Zealots (a religious group of the time who gave little or no honor to the temple) in 67-68 AD or the arrival of idolatrous Roman practices in the temple in 70 AD. No matter which it actually was, this was to be the warning sign to flee. Christians who heeded Christ’s warning escaped the horrible Roman war on the Jews which saw the death of an estimated 1,100,000 Jews at the hands of Rome. This was the “Great Tribulation” Jesus promised in Matthew 24:21.
It’s no exaggeration to say the American Church needs this understanding. Over the last 3 years alone, we’ve seen everything promised by Jesus in Matthew 24: including a worldwide pandemic. Speculation about Christ’s return is everywhere. But when we understand that Jesus spoke of the events that would lead to Jerusalem’s destruction instead of the Russian/Ukrainian war, food shortages at the local grocery store, COVID, and the devastating earthquake in Turkey, I believe we’ll be comforted knowing that God is sovereign and that we can pull back from seeing each day’s news cycle as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. At least that’s been the case for me.
For our purposes, let’s skip ahead to verse 36 to discuss another aspect of this passage that has caused much confusion in the body of Christ.
“ But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.  But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark,  and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.  Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.”Matthew 24:36-42 (emphasis mine)
Jesus draws a clear line in the sand by saying “But of that day and hour”. This phrase marks a transition from “these things” (the events leading up to and including AD 70) to “that day” (His Second Coming). While many people believe that the demarcation between “these things” and “that day” happens at verse 25, I agree with D.A. Carson, Sam Storms, and many others who believe that verse 36 is where Jesus makes the transition. He begins His discussion of “that day” by saying that His Second Coming will be like the days of Noah. When you read that, you have to ask yourself, “What happened in the days of Noah?” Because—contrary to how many people (including myself until recently) read the remainder of this passage—the days of Noah did not look like the supposed rapture where the righteous were taken and the unrighteous left behind. Rather, the ungodly, unrighteous, faithless people were destroyed and Noah’s family was left behind. Noah’s Ark isn’t a story of God snatching up His faithful servants and rescuing them out of the world, but rather a judgment on wickedness that Noah and his family were preserved through.
This passage is incredibly easy to interpret if we stop to think. But, if we come to the text believing there’s going to be a secret rapture, we will introduce things into the passage that were never intended (and for most of church history, weren’t considered) to be there. Practically speaking, Jesus’ prediction that “two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left,” is not a warning of a secret rapture where the Church gets taken away to be with the Lord in Heaven, but rather a picture of His Second Coming when He will come to judge the living and the dead and institute the New Heaven and New Earth. Any doctrine which claims that there will be a secret rapture of believers directly contradicts the clear teaching of Jesus that His Second Coming would be akin to the Great Flood of Genesis 6, 7, and 8. While the precise day and time are unknown to everyone except the Father, Christ’s return will be obvious to all and will lead directly into the consummation of history and the inauguration of the New Heaven and New Earth.
As we conclude our discussion of Matthew 24, we’re going to turn our attention to Christ’s Parousia, a common Greek word most often used to refer to His Second Coming. Specifically, we’re going to explore the first-century context of the word in hopes of coming to a more complete understanding of New Testament eschatology.
The Coming (Parousia) of the Lord
1 Thessalonians 4 sits alongside Matthew 24 as one of the core end-times passages in the Bible. For our purposes, we’re going to zoom into verses 15-17.
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
This is a paper on Revelation, not 1 Thessalonians. But it’s critical that we study this passage because a misinterpretation here will cause all sorts of interpretive issues in Revelation. This is a core passage of dispensationalism and has led to an entire genre of Rapture teaching and media like the wildly popular Left Behind series. This idea of a secret rapture of the Church has become so ubiquitous throughout American Christendom that many believers simply assume it’s the truth. But, as you’re probably picking up, I’m going to propose that 1 Thessalonians 4 does not speak of a secret rapture of the Church but rather a singular, final coming of Jesus Christ prior to the Final Judgment.
The first important thing to know when coming to this passage is that the first-century Thessalonian church faced tremendous persecution. Their region was very hostile to the message of Jesus and they found themselves anxious about life and the coming return of Christ. Only four verses earlier, Paul got pastorally practical with them, telling them that one way they could ease their anxiety was to work with their hands and immerse themselves in the physical world. This would then help their witness to unbelievers as they would no longer need to rely on others to meet their basic needs (4:9-12).
Starting in 4:13, Paul then turns to the church’s questions regarding the return of Christ. Specifically, they were wondering if those who died before Christ’s return would have missed out on the bodily resurrection. Paul sets it straight: no, they will rise at the obvious return of the Lord (v. 16). In fact, Paul says that “the dead in Christ will rise first”. After those who have already died rise, “we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This verse has been misconstrued to mean that believers will be sucked up into the air where we’ll float above the earth and play harps while wearing resurrection body diapers (okay, maybe not the last part), but that’s simply not the picture Paul paints here.
The Greek word Paul uses in verse 15 for “coming” is the same word Jesus used when describing His return in Matthew 24:37. That word, as previewed above, is parousia, which simply refers to a “coming” or “arrival” of somebody somewhere. Obviously, it’s a fitting word for Christ’s return at the end of human history. But you may not know that it has its roots in a common event of that day. It’s within this context that we need to understand Paul’s description of Christ’s parousia.
In the first century, parousia commonly described a coming of a king, ruler, official, or dignitary to a city. The people of that city would go out to meet him outside the city before escorting him back to the city. Once back in the city, the official would be honored and then begin a process of judgment of important legal cases. This is what Paul is referring to in 1 Thessalonians 4. He’s saying to the Thessalonians, “If you want to know what Jesus’ Second Coming is going to be like, it’s going to be like the way cities welcome officials. All believers will be a part of it. And don’t worry, you’re not going to miss it either. So be comforted and comfort one another with this!”
While this is thought to be the chief passage that proves the existence of a secret rapture of Christ, our study has shown us that this isn’t the case. First off, it won’t be a secret; Christ will shout with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpets of God. And the teaching that believers will be secretly taken away before Christ’s Final Return has no biblical basis. So, please take a breath. Relax. Like the Thessalonians, you don’t need to fear that you’ve missed Christ’s return. And you can rest assured that His return will inaugurate the Final Judgment, resulting in all believers joining the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Closing Thoughts on Premillennialism
The belief that Christ will return for a secret rapture of the church prior to a literal one thousand-year reign of Christ (The Millennium) described in Revelation 20 is the basis of premillennial eschatology. But as we’ve seen, this idea has no Biblical basis. And if that’s true, premillennial dispensationalism as a whole falls apart.
As we close out our discussion of the Millennium, let us now turn to our preferred interpretation: Amillennialism.
The Amillennial Alternative
Amillennialism (more accurately called “Inaugurated Millennialism”) holds that there is a millennial rule of Christ, but that the Millennium is now: the church age! This is by far the simplest viewpoint, and while we shouldn’t always assume that “simplest is correct”, it is the case when studying the Millennium. David Campbell provides a marvelous Amillennialist commentary of Revelation 20 in Mystery Explained, which I’ll summarize below:
First, Satan was bound through the work of Christ on the cross and the fact that He was raised from the dead. Through Christ’s blood which covers the saints’ sin, Satan is no longer free to bring accusations against them. Because nearly two thousand years have passed since Christ’s resurrection, this binding is for a symbolic one thousand years—representing an indeterminately long period of time.
Second, the souls of all deceased believers will reside with Christ in heaven, while “the rest of the dead” (deceased unbelievers) will not have a part in this “first resurrection”. The deceased believers (described in verse 4) will reign with Christ for the duration of the church age as a preliminary fulfillment of 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 where Paul writes that the saints will judge the world and angels.
Third, at the very end of the Millennium, Satan will be released from his binding and sovereignly allowed to once again deceive the nations. This deceptive activity, while apparently severe, will be under God’s sovereign control. This deception will result in a massive Satanic rebellion against God and His people, yet God will crush the rebellion (represented by fire coming down from heaven and consuming them) and cast Satan into the lake of fire along with the beast and false prophet.
Fourth, the judgment of Satan will usher in the destruction of the physical creation, the introduction of the eternal creation, and the Final Judgment (the second death). Those who were not part of the first resurrection will be judged according to their works and thrown into the (symbolic or literal) lake of fire. Those who have the seal of God (faithful believers) will then join Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Creation.
Amillennialism’s largest hurdle lies in proving that the events of chapter 20 come before the final battle depicted in 19:19-21. In Mystery Explained David Campbell provides six pieces of evidence that this is the case. While I won’t discuss all six, I’ve found the most convincing evidence to be linked to our earlier discussion of recapitulation. In the case of the Millennium, we find that the battle of 20:7-10 is also described in 16:12-16 and 19:17-21. All three passages draw on the prophetic visions of Zechariah and Ezekiel to describe the nations of the world gathering together for war against God and His armies. In Revelation, the armies are always described as being gathered together through demonic deception, and the fact that they all depict the same battle shows us that the Millennium of chapter 20 describes the indefinite time period from Christ’s resurrection through His Second Coming rather than a literal 1,000-year intermediate reign of Christ on the earth.
The Amillennial position—while perhaps not as stimulating as a Secret Rapture or 7-Year Tribulation—is both the common sense interpretation and the interpretation that holds up to thorough exegesis. I hope this discussion has been helpful and would encourage you to take your study deeper through any of the recommended resources referred to throughout this essay.
Landing The Plane
This journey has taken us in a lot of different directions. I hope you feel more confident in your eschatology than ever and have found this comforting rather than disturbing. While discussing the 4 interpretive schools, recapitulation, and the millennium don’t immediately lead to practical application, they are essential for forming a healthy eschatology which will in turn help you live a faithful life to God—what this is ultimately all about.
When we stand before the judgment seat of heaven, God won’t ask us whether we were pre-, post-, or amillennial. He’ll test our faith in Christ. So with that, I want to bring this essay to a close with a discussion of the three core practical messages of Revelation.
The Three Core Messages of Revelation
1. God is sovereign over all of human history—even when it looks like He isn’t
First and foremost, God gave John this revelation to showcase His sovereignty over all of human history. We must remember that the context in which John received and wrote these visions was much different than our modern western culture. While persecution for those of us living in the United States might look like a harsh word from an unbeliever, mild harassment, or getting “canceled”, John had literally been exiled to the island of Patmos for his faithfulness to the gospel. He then wrote to seven churches, four of which we know faced or would face persecution. Of course, it’s likely that all seven churches had to endure some measure of persecution which Jesus, who speaks directly to each church, would see them through.
As John ends the letters in chapter 3 and moves into the series of visions (chs. 4-22), we need to pay attention to the theme of God’s sovereignty. Whether it’s through the four depictions of judgment (which covers the same series of events from different perspectives), God is fully in control through them. All instances of God’s wrath against evil stem from His holiness. This was true in the plagues of Egypt and continues today. By sinning, we have offended the one and only holy God and there must be consequences. Our modern Christian culture has adopted a diminished view of God’s holiness and many find it difficult (if not implausible) to accept that the God of the universe might—as He sovereignly determines—administer judgment. I know I’ve struggled with this idea previously. “But Christ took the penalty of sin for us!” we shout in defiance. That’s correct, but Christ’s life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension do not replace God’s judgments accomplishing their three-fold purpose: to refine believers, to stir up drifting souls to repentance, and to harden the hearts of those who have refused to believe and obey. In this way, the judgments depicted in Revelation are like the plagues of Exodus. In fact, many of the judgments in Revelation clearly allude to the plagues.
One example of God’s sovereignty is in Revelation 11 where the Church—depicted as the two witnesses—is sent to prophesy of God’s coming judgment by declaring the Gospel and the consequences of disobeying it. These witnesses are then killed and left to be an open spectacle for a symbolic three-and-a-half day period (11:7-10). This vision symbolizes a coming end times reality in which the church—having suffered severe persecution—loses all (or nearly all) worldly influence and is mocked. The Church’s apparent death and open humiliation (paralleling Christ’s time in the tomb) will be followed by a God-breathed resurrection of the church which ushers in the Final Judgment (seen by the blowing of the Seventh Trumpet in v. 15). This is good news! In the darkest moments of life, believers have hope! Even when things look bleakest for the Church, we can trust that God is sovereignly working out His purpose and will vindicate those who remain faithful to Him.
All in all, Revelation is primarily an encouragement to Christians of all ages that God is sovereignly in control despite what we may see. Instead of fearing that we’ve been left behind in the secret rapture and are now facing God’s wrath, we can be encouraged that God is working all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose: forming you into the image of Jesus. Be encouraged!
2. A call to faithfulness to God through various trials and tribulations
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”John 16:33
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve almost certainly heard about tribulation. Whether it’s referring to minor daily troubles or “The Great Tribulation” of Revelation 7 or Matthew 24, tribulation is a regular New Testament theme. To demonstrate that, let’s go down a quick Greek rabbit trail.
The Greek word for tribulation is thlipsis. Occurring 45 times in the New Testament, it most commonly refers to the present sufferings of Christians. As David Campbell writes in Mystery Explained, “thlipsis is commonly used by Paul to refer to present trials. Times of tribulation mark the church age, and Christians cannot expect to be exempt from such trials. Tribulation refers not to a particular time period immediately prior to the return of Christ, but to a regular feature of church life (see 1:9; 7:14). This is the normal use of the word “tribulation” elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom. 5:3; 12:12; 2 Cor. 1:4; Phil. 4:14; Col. 1:24; 1 Thess. 1:6; Jas. 1:27; see Mt. 24:4-28) The reality of ongoing tribulation is verified by any study of church history. This reminds us of the sad fact that more Christians are being martyred today than ever before. Nevertheless, if they are faithful, these believers will receive the crown of life. This is one of the central messages of Revelation, that faithfulness to Christ, though costly in this life, brings an eternal reward far outweighing any earthly suffering.” While Revelation seems to predict increasing tribulation against the Church as we draw near to Christ’s Second Coming, it’s a promised present reality. One that John spoke of in the book’s opening.
One thing that really helped me to see the meaning of tribulation inside Revelation was 1:9 where John writes, “I, John, both your brother and companion in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was on the island of Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” It shouldn’t surprise you that the Greek word for “tribulation” is thlipsis, which testifies to the present-day reality of tribulation against believers. John identifies with his audience in their present-day tribulations and writes this letter as a pastoral encouragement to remain faithful to Christ despite tribulation which still applies to us today in whatever tribulation we face.
The second core message of Revelation is that despite varying degrees of tribulation (including death for one’s faith), God wins in the end and the righteous will be vindicated. But our vindication isn’t unconditional. God calls us to remain faithful to Him. Despite whatever tribulation, temptation, and persecution comes our way, we must never abandon the Lord or compromise with the world system.
3. Do not compromise with the world system
The third core message of Revelation is to never compromise with the world system. Revelation is brimming with imagery to describe this fallen state of the world: Balaam, Jezebel, the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea, the Beast from the Earth, the Mark of the Beast (with its number, 666), and Babylon. Each is meant to reveal the truth of the fallen world system—led by the devil himself— that opposes God’s will and seeks to destroy all semblances of faith in the earth. At the same time, these symbols are given to reveal the demonic nature behind earthly realities and call Christians to uncompromising, steadfast obedience to God.
Some of the more memorable images of evil are The Beast (13:1-10), The False Prophet (also called the Beast from the Earth, 13:11-18), and The Prostitute (17:1-6). These characters share the same mission but are distinct in focus and are worth discussing in greater detail.
The Beast of the Sea
First, the Beast of the Sea (“The Beast”) opposes God’s people through intimidating violence as it makes war with the saints. Tyrannical governments have used intimidation and violence to silence people throughout history and this beast shows us the spiritual reality behind not only violent government oppression, but all forms of intimidation that would seek to stop people from following the Lord.
The False Prophet
Second, the False Prophet (or “The Beast from the Earth”) fights believers through deceptive heresy. As John writes, “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast…He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (13:13-17).
David Campbell points out that the fact that The False Prophet has two horns like a lamb (13:11) “suggests its role is not only to be a deceptive representative of Christ, but to mimic the two witnesses, two lampstands and two olive trees, all of which represent the church”. Whereas the first beast loudly & publicly opposes God, the False Prophet’s deception is much more subtle. He does this by persuading the church to adopt the world’s pagan & idolatrous practices all while appearing like Christ.
A simple study of church history suggests that The False Prophet is a spiritual reality and not a single individual. Since Pentecost, the deceptive spirit of the False Prophet has been at work trying to twist God’s purposes and cause God’s people to desert the faith. A simple reading of the New Testament epistles makes this clear.
But the False Prophet isn’t only at work in the church. He sees some of his greatest success among unbelievers. This is rampant in our modern day, and one area I see it most commonly is in the New Age self-development camps of The Secret, Think and Grow Rich, and other schools of supposed transformational “success” teaching that distorts spiritual principles to help people “manifest” their dreams. It’s exceedingly easy—in our culture focused on appearance over substance and success over character—to give oneself to this teaching and desert Christ in doing so. Personally, this has been a constant temptation in my life, and I’m grateful that God has opened my eyes to see the nature of these deceptive teachings. It is of these people who have a form of godliness but deny its power that Paul tells Timothy to have nothing to do with.
The False Prophet is also responsible for the Mark of the Beast. Let me say this at the very beginning: this is not a literal mark, whether a credit card, computer chip, or vaccine. The mark is the satanic counterfeit to the “seal” placed upon the foreheads of believers by God in 7:3 and 14:1. God’s seal demonstrates His ownership of a person through that person’s faithful submission, The Beast’s mark is a symbol demonstrating the devil’s ownership of a person. That the mark is placed on the forehead and right hand reveals that one’s spiritual allegiance affects a person’s beliefs (forehead) and actions (right hand). This is the counterfeit of Exodus 13:9, where Moses instituted the Feast of Unleavened Bread and spoke of the feast’s remembrance as “a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes.” Through the False Prophet’s deception, many pledge allegiance to Satan and take on the symbolic mark of demonic ownership.
Finally, the False Prophet has a number: 666. Many attempts have been made to use gematria, the numerical computation of words, to “prove” that various emperors, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or more recently the mask mandates to fight the COVID pandemic are the incarnation of the False Prophet. It’s an enticing approach, but as G.K. Beale writes, “Through any interpreter’s creative ingenuity, the number can be worked out on the basis of Greek, Hebrew, or Latin to identify hundreds of possible ancient and modern candidates. There are so many proposals because it is easy to turn a name into a number, but complicated to deduce the right name from a number…All attempts to identify the number with the literal calculation of some individual’s name encounter difficulty because of the metaphorical manner in which language and numbers are used in the book.”
All of the gematrial attempts have been weak at best, but they fall short in one main area. That is, every other number in Revelation carries a symbolic meaning. 4, 7, 10, 12, and 40 all represent fullness & completion in different ways. 1,000 represents an extremely large number. And the 144,000 of the tribes of Israel in chapter 7 is 12 times 12 times 1000, signifying the complete number of the Lord’s people—who are now the church.
So what does the number 6 represent? Good question. To understand that, we must go back all the way to Genesis. Remember that it was on the 6th day that God created man in His image. God then ceased His work on the 7th day, declaring that His creative work was complete. Without the 7th day of rest, creation was not complete. Man later disobeyed God in the garden, and the number 6 now represents fallen humanity who—despite our best efforts—can never reach our created intention through our own efforts. It’s only through faith in Christ that we come to the completeness of the rest of the 7th day and the fact that The Beast’s number is 666 is God’s way of showing us that those who follow The Beast will never settle into the rest and fulfillment they desire, but will come up empty in the end.
Third, the Prostitute of chapter 17 launches her attack on the saints using beguiling affluence and sensual pleasure. Verse 4 highlights The Prostitute’s lavish adornment, pointing to her ability to deceive through the attractiveness of wealth and affluence. She is contrasted and shown to be a counterfeit of the church, yet her connection to and affiliation with spiritual Babylon (17:5) highlights the temptation launched against mankind to conform to the corrupt economic activity and idolatrous practices of those who seek wealth above all else.
Success in business is not bad. It’s a necessary tool for Kingdom expansion and the Church ought to honor those who faithfully witness in the marketplace. But, the Prostitute symbolizes the temptation to pursue wealth as an end in itself. This temptation can take many forms, but it is all rooted in the idolatry of wealth (including the simple love of money). The Prostitute is shown to have a mark of allegiance to Babylon—representing the fallen world system—on her forehead, which men and women throughout history have taken on in the self-serving pursuit of wealth.
The Purpose of the Characters
In each character, believers are shown a symbol of the systems that oppose them and seek to destroy their faith in Christ. Practically speaking, we are all susceptible to temptation and we need to—as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:11—not be ignorant of the enemy’s devices. For example, if you’re weak in the face of intimidation, pray that the Holy Spirit would give you strength to stand against the oppression of the Beast of the Sea. If you need discernment to fight against the False Prophet’s subtle deception inside and outside the church, ask God who liberally grants wisdom to all who ask. And if the deceitfulness of riches and affluence tempts you to walk away from the Lord and hinders your obedience to Him, ask the Father to prune your heart so that you would desire Him above all this world has to offer.
Of course, it’s reasonable that we’re all susceptible to all 3 in different ways. I know I am. While we’ve been redeemed, we are not yet glorified. It’s good to ask for God’s help against the enemy’s schemes and we must never consider ourselves to have escaped their influence and no longer be in need of God’s grace and strength for endurance in the faith as long as we are on the Earth. In so doing, we answer God’s call to not compromise.
Closing Thoughts on Compromise
I don’t know what you were told when you came to faith in Christ, but you are in a war. But it’s not a war as we usually think about it, for the victory has already been secured. But while the ultimate victory is guaranteed, it is up to you and me to choose faith and obedience over cowardice, fear, and compromise. This, more than precise predictions about scary-looking characters in some far-off future, is why God has revealed this to us. We all have a call to never compromise. To stand firm in Christ, no matter the temptation and tribulation that come our way. And in our steadfast, enduring faith in Christ, we will receive the blessing promised to all who read, hear, and keep the words of Revelation.
The End: What should you do when you meet your neighborhood dispensationalist?
As we close this essay, I believe it’s important for us to address a real-life consideration of how to live in light of what we’ve just learned. Namely, how are we to respond and relate to people who hold different (and what we believe, incorrect) views of Revelation? If you run into a raging dispensationalist in the street (or your church!), should you grab them by the shoulder, decree, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” and shower them with anointing oil?
Please don’t. One thing God has taught me this year is that He truly is sovereign and in control. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s doctrinal beliefs are God-ordained; I do believe we all have a personal responsibility to study and show ourselves approved. But God’s at work in it all, often in ways that are beyond my ability to understand.
Doctrinally, there are primary, secondary, and tertiary matters. As we lean into Saint Augustine’s admonition to pursue unity in essentials; liberty in non-essentials; and charity in all we must ask where the proper interpretation of Revelation falls in that spectrum.
I believe that Revelation is important—critically important. I agree with David Campbell that your end-times theology (eschatology) affects absolutely everything about your life. For example, if you don’t believe in a final judgment and a successive eternal conscious state of reward or punishment, your life will manifest what you believe. But if you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who will return at the end of history to judge the living and the dead, you will repent, receive the forgiveness of sin only available through Christ’s death and resurrection, and live a life that seeks to bring God glory. This confession is one of the marks of a Christian, and believers from every millennial camp would affirm the reality of Christ’s Lordship, His Second Coming, and the conscious, eternal destiny awaiting every person who’s ever lived, making eschatological specifics a secondary doctrinal issue.
Of course, these are opposite sides of the spectrum. But when it comes to our discussion, there is a range of beliefs somewhere in the middle. I do believe that the idealist, amillennial interpretation is the most faithful and correct, and I hope you do now as well. But the fact remains that many people are true believers in Christ, obey Him in faith, yet do not hold this view of the Bible’s final book. Should we break fellowship with or anathematize them?
Of course not. For I believe there is room in the church for varying beliefs. We must pray and ask God that by His Spirit, He would grant us all greater wisdom, knowledge, and understanding but that above all, we would put on love. We must remain humble and not glory in our intelligence, but instead pray and ask God to help us not turn our love off to each other while we hold differing opinions.
And in so doing, we will fulfill our Lord’s command found in John 13:34-35:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Beale, G. K. Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2015.
Campbell, David. Mystery Explained: A Simple Guide to Revelation. David Campbell, 2020.
Storms, Samuel. Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative. Fearn, Scotland: Mentor,
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James version of the Bible.
Resources for Continued Learning
- New Testament Eschatology Course by David Campbell on TheosU
- Eschatology Course by David Campbell on TheosU
- Mark of the Beast Course by Chris Palmer on TheosU
- The Most Confusing Chapter in the Gospels, Podcast Episode by Good Theology
- Why am I an Amillennialist? Podcast Episode by Sam Storms.
- The Last Days According to Jesus, Video Series on YouTube by RC Sproul