Revelation: Past, Present & Future
Does the Revelation to John refer to events past, present, or future? To answer this question, we must enter into John's mind in the setting of first-century Patmos. He was a captive on the island, a prison colony for enemies of the Roman Empire. This means that John most likely had something to say to his original audience as well as to later generations. Therefore, the twin theological positions of this essay are partial preterism and historic premillennialism. In other words, Revelation mentions first-century historical events in context, but also as a typological preview of things now and in the future. If the kingdom of heaven is "now and not yet" (Luke 17:20-21; 19:11), this means the end times have been partially realized while others await us.
Full preterism is the eschatological position that all end times events happened in the first century, to include Jesus' return. However, partial preterism views many parts of his Olivet discourse (Matt. 24:3-25:46; Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:5-36) as both "now/not yet." Full preterists believe Jesus returned in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the second temple. Conversely, partial preterists generally see this eschaton as something in the future. We must be vigilant for Jesus' return, so belief in historic premillennialism seems most in line with scripture. This was the general consensus of the early church for its first three-hundred years. It is historic for this reason, and because it differs from the dispensational premillennialism (i.e., the scriptural timeline features many dispensations) more commonly known by Christians today. Premillennialists of both types believe the literal millennium will take place after Jesus' second coming but before the resurrection of the living and the dead.
John wrote about the antichrist spirit in his first epistle and in the Revelation he received. He warned that many antichrists will deceive humankind (1 John 2:18) and even alluded to one in particular: Nero (AD 37–68). It is likely that Revelation is somewhat of a political document criticizing the Roman Empire ("Babylon"), especially its cruel and self-deifying emperor. John defined antichrist as anyone who denies that Jesus is the Messiah (1 John 2:22). Whereas dispensationalists view antichrist as Satan incarnate, the historic premillennial position sees him as a normal political leader like so many before. It is not that antichrist is more evil than other dictators, but exists at the time God arranged for him. Historic premillennialists opine Revelation describes first-century events, especially the persecutions of Nero and Domitian (AD 51–96) against the church, which were typologies of future tribulations. Their hermeneutic formula is "now and not yet," that Jesus and his apostles warned of things coming in their own time as well as those yet to happen. Therefore, it is prudent to say the emperor Nero was the antichrist for the early church and more like him have manifested ever since. For example, he was the Caesar who executed both Peter and Paul in AD 64. Historically speaking, leaders such as "bloody" Mary Tudor (1516–1558), Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), the Boko Haram, or the Islamic State (ISIS) fulfilled the role of "antichrist." Although various sociopolitical pressures contributed to the persecution of Christians by these dictators, it was the central tenet of Christianity that "Jesus alone is Lord" that challenged their rule. Simply put, antichrists fear the existence of a sovereign kingdom within their own territories of which they lack control. That persecution of the church continues undoubtedly proves the kingdom of God exists alongside the realm of darkness. Jesus taught the kingdom of heaven does not come from this world (John 18:36), but endures within the church (Luke 17:21). In his parable of the strong man, Christ also alluded to the capture of Satan (Matt. 12:27-29), a reality that allows the church to increase its proliferation of the gospel. Even in his own day, Paul testified how the gospel message had already reached every creature under heaven (Col. 1:23). He also said to the Thessalonians, "Now you know what is holding [the man of lawlessness] back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time" (2 Thess. 2:6). Upon release, the antichrist will hinder the gospel one last time, something lesser antichrists have been unable to do.
The emperor Nero was not the final antichrist, as the realized eschatology of full preterism holds. However, John included symbols pointing to Nero because he was an immediate example of the ultimate antichrist to come. Ever since Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC, the Roman Senate proclaimed each emperor a god after death. However, Nero was the first Caesar to claim deity while he was still alive. For example, the coins he minted as the official Roman currency included sunbeams alluding to the sun-god Apollo. In the Jewish mind, such a claim was blasphemy and the use of Nero's coins was likely considered idolatry, or the worship of graven images. In Revelation, John used the Greek charagma (G5480) when describing the "mark" of the beast (Rev. 13:16-17; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). In this context, charagma was a coin engraved with Nero's likeness and his claim to divinity. The word was also employed by Luke, specifically when Paul told the philosophers of Athens that human beings are the image of God, rather than graven images (Acts 17:29). In the same way Christ rebuked the leaders of Israel for yielding to the emperor instead of God, John admonished the early church to avoid Nero's coinage. He also warned of the economic impact regarding the inability to buy or sell without official currency (Rev. 13:17). Simply put, the final antichrist will not just be a leader who denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, but one that also persecutes the church. He will jeopardize the safety of individual Christians and isolate them from civil society. The greatest example of Nero committing such an evil deed was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which he blamed on the early Christians and resolutely justified their torture.
Mark of the Beast
The mark of the beast also has a decidedly Jewish meaning. Deuteronomy includes a passage in which God commands the Israelites to acknowledge his sovereignty; to love him fully and unconditionally; and to mark their foreheads and their hands with his precepts (Deut. 6:8-9). In Jewish tradition, men wear small leather boxes called tefillin in keeping with God's law. Thus, the mark of the beast has a religious and spiritual dimension, not just a socioeconomic one. It is an antichrist tefillin, one that reminds the wearer to disobey God and to reject him outright. John warned the early Christians that anyone who receives the mark would be judged by God at world’s end (Rev. 14:9-11). It is not enough for Satan to lead human beings into temptation, but to offer himself as a counterfeit deity with a false gospel in tow. Thus, antichrist is simply his copy of Jesus Christ for the fallen world. With a risen Christ, there must be a risen antichrist. Thereby, John reportedly saw a beast with ten horns and seven heads, one of which had been mortally wounded but miraculously healed (Rev. 13:1-3). Rome itself is the beast, a city known to have encompassed the traditional seven hills of Palatine, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, Aventine, and Capitoline. Its seven heads are various emperors starting from Julius Caesar through Nero, with the latter being the wounded but restored head. When John wrote about this revelation, he probably had some source material at hand. For example, the Sibylline Oracles mentioned a folk belief among the Romans that Nero did not really commit suicide in 68, but was plotting an insurgency against the empire from his Parthian stronghold (Orac. Sybil. 4.160). In his footnotes for this text, the biblical scholar Milton S. Terry (1899) wrote, "Nero, whose murder of his mother is notorious, and whose flight beyond the Euphrates and expected return as antichrist was a superstitious tradition long maintained" (4.155). Coincidentally, the Roman historians Tacitus (c. AD 56–120), Suetonius (c. AD 69–122), and the Greek philosopher Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40–110) accounted for three men who attempted revolts while claiming to be Nero resurrected. It is also possible Domitian could have been the Nero redivivus in a metaphorical sense, that another wicked emperor like Nero took his place. Either way, the mark of the beast is a graven image of a false god upon the forehead—the center of abstract thought and order—and the hand which carries out what the mind plans. The antichrist to come will likely find a modern device that he can use to control one's ability to buy or sell. He will also employ it to malign God's people at the spiritual level.
Number of his Name
John said that antichrist is just a man. He advised the reader to identify the antichrist by calculating the mathematical value of his name: 666 (Rev. 13:18). Some manuscripts of Revelation have 616 instead of 666 as the antichrist's number, but only to make the same reference to Nero in the Latin language (Nro Qsr) as in the original Greek (Nron Qsrn) when transliterated into the Hebrew alphabet. Some of the original Greek manuscripts of Revelation use this shorthand instead of writing out the words: χξϛ (i.e., the letters chi, xi, and stigma) or χξϝ with a digamma representing the number six. John's warning is about a human being, not Satan incarnate. The man of sin will simply be a political leader, who may not even know he is the antichrist rather than just a disbeliever in God. Just as the emperor Nero had more than a few Roman citizens who admired him, the antichrist will be a celebrated ruler. The most approximate example in modern times was Adolf Hitler, who mesmerized an entire nation so much it venerated his name as a greeting (e.g., "heil Hitler"). Yet, even a monster like Hitler succumbed to defeat and was no devil in disguise. He was nothing more than a misguided human being who trusted his own standards rather than God’s precepts.
Time of the Gentiles
In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus warned his disciples about an imminent conquest of Jerusalem. His prophecy likely referred to the sacking of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman general Titus. Thus, the gentile domination of Judea's capital was a pending reality. However, Jesus also anticipated a time when such gentile rule would end (Luke 21:24). This passage exemplifies the realized eschatology refrain, "now and not yet." The conquest of Jerusalem happened within one generation of Christ's foretelling according to his Olivet discourse (Matt. 24:34). Likewise, gentile dominion over Jerusalem ended in 1948, when the United Nations recognized the State of Israel as a sovereign nation governed by Jewish authorities. This is the where premillennialists disagree with their dispensationalist counterparts: the identity of Israel. In premillennialism, Israel is either the church replacing the Jews under the Mosaic Law or some combination thereof. Dispensationalists consider the modern State of Israel a rightful heir to God's chosen people of antiquity. Whereas the former do not generally weigh Jesus' foretelling about the "time of the gentiles," the latter seemingly give it too much consideration. For nearly two millennia following the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70, gentiles in the form of Roman soldiers, Byzantine imperialists, European crusaders, Islamic armies, and British colonizers occupied the city. Premillennialists should regard this fact alone a meaningful one, mainly because Jesus himself foretold it. Just as the biblical authors proclaimed the end times, "now and not yet," the identity of Israel is also twofold. Jesus clearly referred to the final occupiers of Jerusalem as "gentiles," who turned out to be Great Britain; then a culturally Christian nation.
Paul declared the Jews' refusal of Jesus as their Messiah the "reconciliation of the world" (Rom. 11:15). In other words, salvation came to the other nations of the world because God’s chosen people rejected him. However, Paul carefully warned his Roman audience that Israel, the Jewish people, is the original olive tree and they are merely secondary beneficiaries (Rom. 11:17-24). The church does not, nor will it ever, supersede ethnic Israel. Among premillennialists and dispensationalists, there is an "either/or" dichotomy in which Israel must be the church or the Jewish people. Not only did Paul identify God's people as two separate, yet reciprocal communities—but also John. Dispensationalists typically identify the two "olive trees" and two "lampstands" of Revelation as Moses and Elijah, but John likely referred to old-covenant Israel and new-covenant Christendom. Consider the menorah's relevance in ancient and modern Jewish liturgy. The apostles Paul and John wrote about the same reality, that God chose the Jewish people and the disciples of Jesus Christ to tell of his righteous precepts. Interestingly, John described how antichrist would attack both witnesses and encourage the world at large to celebrate their deaths. However, God will resurrect these lampstands after three days, the same time frame he allowed Jesus to experience death. Although the existence of the State of Israel may provide the world a tangible community of Jews, it does not necessarily imply the eschaton is imminent. The world's persecution of Israel and the church will continue until it escalates to the point of warfare against them. The final antichrist will lead the charge against the two olive trees and lampstands that bear witness to God’s righteousness. When John wrote about the "nations" (i.e., gentiles) that will revolt against the witnesses, he was talking about those people outside God's old and new covenants (Rev. 11:1-14). Thus, the downfall of antichrist and his godless disciples will be the ultimate fulfillment of time of the gentiles.
Return of the King
In full preterist eschatology, Jesus already returned in AD 70 to visit his wrath on national Israel for their rejection of his messiahship. However, the parousia (i.e., arrival) must happen with knowledge of the entire world (Rev. 1:7), to be announced with seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11). Every knee will bow to Jesus, to include all human beings and angels in heaven, on earth, and those who died (Phil. 2:9-11). However, the "trumpets" are not just any trumpets, but the shofar (i.e., ram's horn). Jews only blow it on their most important feast days. A shofar blast launched the siege of Jericho (Josh. 6:4-20) served as a call to repentance (Isa. 58:1; Hos. 8:1); gathered people for assembly and worship (Num. 10:3; Ps. 47:6); and announced the official visits of kings. Therefore, it is a symbol of the end times, which convey all of these same themes. Today, the Jews most commonly associate the shofar with their New Year (Hebrew: Rosh haShanah; literally, "head of the year") and the Day of Atonement (Hebrew: Yom Kippur). The time in between these holidays are known as the "Days of Awe," a time of deep personal and national repentance. Consider how we make New Year's resolutions to do something better. The greatest use of the shofar is the Lord's day and the end of the age (Isa. 27:13; Joel 2:1). Jesus himself will blow the "great shofar" when he returns, following great days of awe and repentance worldwide (1 Cor. 15:51-57; 1 Thess. 4:16).
The Jewish festivals give us a clue about God's timeline for the eschaton. We must be careful not to set dates, as Jesus forbid us (Matt. 24:36; 25:13; Mark 13:32). However, the Father provided the Jews a calendar to know how he acts in the world. For example, the Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover (Hebrew: Peshach), at the same time that the lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover meal that evening. The feast of unleavened bread points to Jesus' sinless nature; therefore the perfect sacrifice for our sins. His body laid in the grave during the initial days of this feast. Likewise, Jesus' resurrection took place on the day of Firstfruits (Hebrew: Bikkurim), as he became the "first fruits from the dead" (1 Cor. 15:20). Pentecost (Hebrew: Shavuot)—fifty days after Jesus' resurrection—implies the great soul harvest of both Jews and gentiles who enter kingdom of God. Jesus inaugurated the Christian church on this day when he poured out the Holy Spirit.
The lengthy span of three months between Shavuot and Rosh haShanah typifies the current age of Christendom. Therefore, the three fall feasts have yet to be fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus the Messiah. He literally fulfilled the first four feasts on their actual days, so the last three will most likely be fulfilled on the actual days too. We cannot know for certain how they will be fulfilled, but they will probably correspond like so: 1) Rosh haShana illustrates the parousia when Jesus will appear in the heavens as a bridegroom coming for his bride, the church; 2) Yom Kippur signifies the day of Jesus' return, the Day of Atonement for the Jewish remnant when they 'look upon Him whom they have pierced,' repent of their sins, and receive Him as their Messiah (Zech. 12:10; Rom. 11:1-6; 25-36); 3) Sukkot—the festival of Booths—points to God's promise that he will once again tabernacle with his people when he returns to reign over the world from Jerusalem (Mic. 4:1-7). If the Jewish calendar, which marks the traditional date given to the earth's creation, sets the pattern for the end times, this makes the upcoming millennial reign of Jesus a type of sabbath. Both the main Jewish commentaries, the Talmud and the Midrash, claim the Messiah will come before the year 6000. Early church leaders such as Irenaeus (c. AD 130–202) also believed that Jesus will return after six "days," following the biblical timescale of sevens and sabbaths. The first century was the fourth millennium for the Jews, so we are now in their sixth. This is the year 5780–81 by Jewish reckoning; AD 2020 on our Gregorian calendar. Could the Lord come to us by the end of our current third millennium?
Historic premillennialism, as a whole, prioritizes biblical, historical, and theological data as an hermeneutic foundation. It has a human face and is not afraid to plumb the depths of human depravity to explore the antichrist spirit in all of us. Conversely, dispensationalism too often makes the antichrist into something "other," never allowing someone to ensure they have adequately put away the antichrist spirit from themselves. Everyone can deify themselves over God and commit heinous sins against him in the way Nero did. Nonetheless, whenever a dispensationalist identifies a man as "antichrist," they accurately see the evil within all humankind. However, if Christians are to love God and their neighbors, then they must prioritize their goodness over their wickedness. As Paul said, Christians love their fellows by assuming the best of them (1 Cor. 13:7).
At first glance, the debate between premillennialists and dispensationalists seemingly pits metaphor and allegory versus literalism and commonsense interpretation. However, both eschatological positions are more complex than how they often appear. Historic premillennialists readily admit evil exists and that it influences human history. For this reason, the kingdom of heaven continues simultaneously with the church's great tribulation. John indicated that God permits the world to exist in its fallen state until the maximum number of souls gain salvation (Rev. 6:11). In his parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus taught the church that sinners will coexist with saints until world's end (Matt. 13:24-30). This lesson challenges the majority dispensationalist view that Christ will rapture the church before the tribulation. Conversely, the church experiences the great tribulation as much as it does the kingdom of heaven. The world will continue this way until antichrist—Nero resurrected—who makes his final challenge to God and receives the due penalty of his rebellion. Thus, the mark of God is faith while that of the beast is a lack of faith.
Perhaps, we speak too much about the mark of the beast and not enough about the seal of the Spirit. Whereas Satan marks those who oppose God before the last day, God makes sure to seal us in our hearts for the day of redemption (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 1 Pet. 1:5; Rev. 7:3-4; 9:4; 14:1; 22:4). Jesus warned us to keep watch, to pray, and to be ready for his return (Mark 13:23; Luke 21:36). For this reason, he did not partake of the fourth cup of wine during his last supper, a Passover meal. The four cups represent the expressions of God's deliverance "I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you . . ." (Exod. 6:6–7). In salvation history, the first cup represented holiness, the second deliverance, the third redemption, and the fourth praise. We await to celebrate this final cup of salvation on the last day, when Jesus will finally partake of it in God's kingdom (Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18). As John wrote, "[Jesus] who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Mercifully grant the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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