How (Not) to Read Revelation, Part II: What Did Jesus and Paul Really Mean?

Well, now that tax season’s finished, I’d like to pick up where I left off. My last post looked at Revelation and concluded that John did not mean to set out a linear course of events by which we’ll know when the Second Coming is. So what is Jesus talking about when He says in the Olivet Discourse, “When ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors” (Matthew 24:33, KJV)? He describes some pretty unusual things occurring, somewhat along the lines of Revelation. I would posit that all the extraordinary events He talks about here were signs of the fall of Jerusalem. He says, “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled” (24:34, KJV). To a Jewish audience, a generation would have meant a span of 40 years. Jesus said these words in approximately 30 A.D., and Jerusalem fell in 70, so there’s your generation. Moreover, note how Luke abbreviates his account of the Olivet Discourse. The disciples don’t ask about the Second Coming in Luke’s account, but Jesus still says that, “This generation shall not pass away till all this be fulfilled” (21:32, KJV). Evidently, these things are not referring to the Second Coming. Luke doesn’t mention the part about not knowing the day or the hour. I think this was the Holy Spirit’s subtle way of telling us how to interpret the extraordinary events of the Olivet Discourse.

Of course, how does this prediction measure up with what we know happened? Can we link all the signs to things we know happened? That interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. As far as nation rising against nation, there were a lot of wars in the 60s. Boudicca and the Britons famously rebelled against Rome, as did the Batavians, not to mention of course the Jews. Worst, Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D. led to the famous Year of Four Emperors in 69 A.D. There was civil war between four Roman emperors, a bloody event the likes of which only a centenarian, if there was any, had seen in living memory. This was the Pax Romana, after all, and Roman generals had not fought each other since Actium in 31 B.C. At one point, part of Rome burned, and Druids were proclaiming that the fall of Rome was near, a very dire prediction for people who had known a century of stability under its (admittedly stern) sway.

As for earthquakes, those were a common feature of the era. The most devastating disruption of the earth in this period, Mt. Vesuvius’s destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, actually occurred 9 years after the fall of Jerusalem, but it was only an extreme example of a trend that had been going on for some time before Jerusalem’s fall. As for famine, we know of at least one from the book of Acts, and no doubt there were others. The Church in Jerusalem, who would be the ones most interested in Jesus’s prophecy, needed widespread financial support from the Church throughout the world, as shown by Paul’s letters. Certainly, the persecution depicted so vividly in the Discourse occurred in Acts as well. Of course, there remains the most spectacular stuff, the signs in the heavens. Well, both the Jews (via Josephus) and the Romans (via Tacitus) reported seeing strange things in the sky during the Siege of Jerusalem.

The early Church took to heart what Jesus said about fleeing Jerusalem in this event. At one point, when the Romans inexplicably withdrew from besieging the city, the Christians took advantage of the opportunity and left the city, such that not a hair of their heads perished, as Jesus had said.

Now, I’ve been mostly looking at Luke’s account for the predictions. Matthew’s does put what seems to be a clear description of the Second Coming in verses 24:27-31, which comes before the part about relying on the signs to know it is near and the generation not passing away until these things happen. I think this is a parenthetical aside, a digression from the subject of the fall of Jerusalem for comparison to the Second Coming, which is not to be included in the “all these things happening before the generation is gone.” Indeed, to include them with the signs that will make us know when it is near is to contradict Jesus’s saying that we won’t know the day and hour.

So that’s what I think about Jesus’s and John’s depictions of the Second Coming. I will say I have a harder time with Paul’s since he does seem to indicate that certain noticeable events will take place before it. Romans 11 pretty clearly describes a large number of Jews turning to Jesus when they see the Gentiles’ relationship with their Messiah, and that has not happened yet. His statement that their reconciliation with God will be “life from the dead” (v. 15, KJV) does seem to indicate this will be part of the end of the world. I really don’t know what to make of this, though I think it does mean we should be praying and reaching out for the Jews to recognize their King since it will be something great.

Then there’s the matter of II Thessalonians 2, where Paul specifically says that rebellion and the Man of Lawlessness will come before the Christ’s coming. I think the best interpretation is probably that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness and that Paul is largely referring to his persecution and the fall of Jerusalem, which were supposed to happen before the Second Coming. Now that these things have happened, Christ can return at any second. If we turn them into signs of Christ’s imminent coming, we make Jesus talk out of both sides of His mouth. On the one hand we have him telling the Twelve Apostles no one knows the time of His coming, and then on the other we have Him telling the Apostle to the Gentiles to give the Thessalonians signs of His coming. We’d be dangerously close to a contradiction in the Bible or at the least Jesus wasting His inspiration giving signs for an event that don’t help the hearers know when it’s going to happen.

These are all very controversial passages, of course. In this case, I think the safest thing to do is fall back on Jesus’s very plain statement that the Second Coming will occur while business is going on as usual with nothing we can use to know when it’s coming. However we interpret these other passages, we shouldn’t contradict something so unambiguous. He taught a lot about His Second Coming, but when He gave all those signs, He must have been referring to His coming in judgment over Jerusalem, not over the whole world at its end. I don’t think it’s helpful to compare every world leader we don’t like to one of the beasts or read Revelation while watching the news. However you interpret Revelation, it’s not going to tell you the day or the hour.

How (Not) to Read Revelation, Part I: What Did John Really Mean?

Is there a book in history as controversial as Revelation? How many books have close to as many schools of interpretation as it does, each with their own variations inside them? I’m not even sure of the name of my own school of interpretation, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did in case that would make you tune me out. I’m not confident about the interpretation of every symbol John saw, but I can tell you a whole bunch of Christians are reading it wrong.

Here’s what I will say I believe. I think the best interpretation is that the main part with all the signs and extraordinary events is a cycle of visions (usually counted at 7) telling the same story with different emphases and intensities. You can see that many things are repeated throughout the story that you would think would only happen once. For instance, chapter 6 has the stars falling to earth and mountains and islands being removed. Then in 12:4 the Dragon pulls down a third of stars from heaven, and in 8:11 another star called Wormwood falls from the sky. In 16:20 the islands and mountains disappear again. “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!” is proclaimed in 14:8 and again in 18:2. A voice calls out, “It is done,” in 16:17, then John sees some more things happening, and then Jesus says, “It is done,” again in 21:6. If this were a linear progression of events, why the first, “It is done,” if there’s more to follow before, “It is done,” again?

I think the point of Revelation is to reveal the cosmic conflict that goes on every day as the Church struggles against a fallen world. I don’t think we should identify any one person we really don’t like as one of the beasts, but rather that when tyrannical governments everywhere imprison and execute Christians because they won’t put the state first in their hearts, we see the first beast at work. We don’t have that problem as much in America, but we do have the Whore of Babylon tempting us away from our spiritual duties with promises of material affluence and sensual pleasures.

Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any.

Anyway, I can tell you what Revelation is not. It is not a linear depiction of all the extraordinary things that will precede the Second Coming of Christ like many Christians make it. For one thing, Christ is born in Chapter 12, midway through a book that starts after His Resurrection. For another, everyone who has tried to predict the Second Coming as imminent in his own day based on Revelation’s “clues” about his current events has been wrong so far. Every generation or so, the interpreters have to reformulate what the symbols stand for according to what’s going on at that time, though the job never wants for volunteers. Would God give a book in the first century that no one in the Church would understand its true meaning for 2,000 years?

Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any. This is a case where we must fall back on the tried-and-true method of interpreting ambiguous Scripture with more explicit Scripture. In Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse, the Apostles ask two questions: “When shall these things (the destruction of the Temple) be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (24:3, KJV). As I interpret it, Jesus answers the first question and gives them signs about the fall of Jerusalem, and then He answers the second question that, “Of that day and hour (My Coming) knoweth no man” and that ,“Ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (24:36; 24:42, KJV). I really doubt Jesus told His disciples that they wouldn’t know when He would come again and then gave them a whole book full of signs that would precede it. In fact, He says that He will come “in such an hour as you think not” (24:44, KJV), so evidently Revelation isn’t much use in regards to predicting the time of the Second Coming anyway.

Moreover, the depiction Revelation supposedly gives of the Last Days is significantly at variance with Jesus’s. He says that people will be “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (24:38, KJV); in other words, life will be going on as usual. That’s not what Revelation depicts. The people can’t eat and drink because they’re gnawing their tongues in anguish and the water has become blood, and they’re not likely to be having weddings while seventy-five-pound hailstones are falling from the sky.

So, bottom line: I think the Church has been seeing the prophecies in Revelation being fulfilled for the past 2,000 years. I don’t think it was written to just describe events that have happened in the last 50 years or so. What I do know is that you can’t use it to predict the time of Christ’s coming; we have Jesus’s explicit statement that we won’t know that. Tune in next week for a discussion of what Jesus said about the Last Days.