Unraveling The Enigma
Of The Revelation Of Jesus Christ,
The first three chapters of The Revelation have proved enigmatic for many Bible interpreters, both past and present. The following essay is proposed as an interpretive approach that unravels the enigma. The interpretation emphasizes the literal meaning of the text (taking into consideration the presence of several symbols), the historical context in which The Revelation was given, the prophetic nature of the material, and a careful accounting of the context in which the letters of Chapters 2 and 3 were placed.
Interpretation of Prophecy
The Revelation is prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 20:7, 10, 18-19). The nature of prophecy focuses on future persons or events separated in time from the prophet’s ministry—sometimes by generations.
For the most part, prophecy can be interpreted literally. However, when the prophet uses symbols or figures-of-speech, these elements must be interpreted from their respective contexts.
A helpful principle of interpretation for prophecy is The Law of Double Reference. Simply stated, “This Law observes the fact that often a passage or block of Scripture is speaking of two different persons or two different events that are separated by a long period of time. In the passage itself they are blended into one picture, and the time gap between the two persons or two events is not presented by the text itself” (The Footsteps of the Messiah, Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G., Ariel Press, 2004, pp. 4-5). This principle may be applied to the respective contents of the last four messages—first to the writer’s generation, and then to future generations.
The Writer and the Receipients
The writer of The Revelation, John, identified himself as a “brother” of those to whom he wrote (Rev. 1:9). Since God had commissioned John as an apostle to the circumcised (cf. Gal. 2:9), his introductory epithet of “brother” could easily be understood in an ethnic sense as well as a spiritual sense. Therefore, The Revelation was, and is, intended for Jews who have believed in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, by command from Jesus’ trumpet-voiced heavenly messenger, seven unnamed earthly messengers, each from a different city in Asia (now Turkey), became the original bearers of The Revelation to their respective believing communities in the seven cities (Rev. 1:11).
Although unnamed, the messengers were represented symbolically as seven stars (Rev. 1:16, 20). Stars were sometimes used symbolically of noteworthy Israelites, suggesting these messengers were Jews of some standing (cf. Gen. 37:9, and Rev 12:1 for stars symbolizing Israelites). Each messenger most likely held leadership status in his believing community (e.g., Rev. 2:5b where the entire believing community’s future lay in the hands of its messenger).
In deference to the messengers and their respective charges being part of the believing Jewish remnant, plus the distinctly Jewish nature of some of the letters’ contents, the believing communities will be referred to as congregations (cf. Heb. 2:12 where the believing community is called a congregation).
Centuries prior to the first vision given John, a singlegolden lampstand was placed within the single congregation of wilderness-wandering Jews as they collectively discovered what life was to be like with God in their midst. Now, in John’s first vision, sevengolden lampstands with Jesus in their midst likely represented the descendants of that single congregation fractured and dispersed abroad. The Jews among the nations have become known as the Diaspora. So the believing Jewish remnant in the Diaspora was symbolically represented by the seven golden lampstands in Asia.
For interpretive clarity, those alive when John wrote will be labeled the “Patmos generation” reflecting John’s island location when he received the instructions, letters’ contents, and visions recorded in The Revelation.
The First Vision
John’s attempt at identifying Jesus’ trumpet-voiced heavenly messenger, who had just given him reporting and distribution instructions, was abruptly interrupted by a vision featuring a fearsome figure of One like a son of man attired in priest-like garments (Rev. 1:12-13).
To allay John’s fears, the One like a son of man identified Himself as Jesus. His identification consisted of four self-descriptive epithets (Rev. 1:17-18). The epithets point the way by which the epistolary material that Jesus dictated to John may be understood. Here is the point at which the enigma may begin to be unraveled.
The Four Epithets
The first epithet by which Jesus identified Himself came from the prophet Isaiah. Significantly, Jesus abstracted the phrase, “the first and the last,” from a declaration God had made to Isaiah. The abstracted phrase used as the first epithet probably was intended to suggest a chronological sequence for what followed with the remaining epithets.
The ‘first and last’ phrase was not only a chronological marker; it also designated a series in which Jesus was the only entity—reminiscent of the title, “the only begotten,” that John used of the incarnation in his gospel (John 1:14). Hence, Jesus’ first self-described epithet also functioned as an abbreviated notation from God’s full revelatory statement to Isaiah (44:6) identifying Jesus as Israel’s one and only kinsman/Redeemer. Should this reasoning be accurate, then the full text of Isaiah 44:6 likely alluded to the incarnation. The incarnation marked the beginning of Jesus’ life as a kinsman in Israel, and as the God-man Redeemer.
The second epithet Jesus used was “the living One,” quoting the angelic messengers’ announcement of His resurrection at the empty tomb thus marking the second significant chronological event in Jesus’ ministry (Luke 24:5). John was witness to both the incarnation and resurrection, reassuring the apostle that the fearsome person in the vision was, in fact, the One who loved him (cf. John 13:23).
The third epithet, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore,” identified Jesus as victor over the law of sin and death that has plagued all humanity since Adam (cf. Rom. 6:9). The third epithet marked the chronological period from resurrection until judgment at the second resurrection (Rev. 20:12-16).
The fourth and final epithet, the ‘One having the keys of death and Hades,’ likely was a reference to the final judgment—the last in the sequence of Jesus’ revealed ministries—when He will use His authority and power to release the wicked from death and Hades for their relocation into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13).
Based on the above analysis of these four self-describing epithets, Jesus had provided John a thumbnail sketch of His past, present, and future ministries. Jesus pronounced a logical deduction that what John was about to write to the seven congregations would likewise be in a past, present, and future ministerial sequence.
The Outline for the Seven Letters
Cognizant that the four epithets had been arranged in a chronological sequence, Jesus next instructed John, “Write, therefore, the things which you have seen [in the vision], and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things” (Rev. 1:19). Here was an outline for the written material included in the seven letters. Jesus’ outline explicitly arranged the material as past, present, and future—that is, in a chronological sequence.
Since Jesus’ epithets in the first vision of The Revelation indicated a chronological sequence, the possibility presents itself that Jesus’ epithets in each of the seven letters may likewise be intended to indicate a chronological sequence. In other words, it is quite possible that the self-identifying epithets Jesus used in each letter could provide the key to separating the letters into the things present and the things future.
Just before beginning His dictation of the seven letters to John, Jesus interpreted the symbol of the seven golden lampstands as seven Asian congregations (Rev. 1:20). Next, Jesus noted that He “. . . walksamong the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1). Walking implies Jesus’ sequentialministry as He comes individually to each of the seven diasporal congregations—a ministry that need not be a simultaneous ministry to all. A sequential ministry clearly points to a time interval that takes place between Jesus’ respective comings to the congregations. The time interval might well be considerable, even spanning generations.
Recall from the seven-letters outline, the “things which you have seen” referred retrospectively to the priest-like vision of Jesus ministering to the seven messengers and their respective congregations. Jesus used items of the priestly vision in His salutations to some of the seven messengers. The “things which are” likely applied to the Patmos generation. The “things which shall take place after these things” probably apply to a generation future to the Patmos generation.
For interpretive clarity, those believing Jews of the Diaspora who live in that future generation are labeled the “rapture/tribulation generation.” The rapture/tribulation generation is the one in which the prophecies of 1 Cor. 15:51-55 (the rapture) and Dan. 9:27 (the tribulation) will be fulfilled.
The Epistolary Structure of the Letters
Each of the seven letters had five parts. Part one was Jesus’ salutation containing His self-descriptive epithets highlighting His ministry to each specific messenger and his congregation. Part two was Jesus’ personal reproof to the messenger himself. Part three was Jesus’ reproof (often implicit rather than explicitly stated) to the rest of the messenger’s congregation. Parts four and five form the closings in each letter—one part to discerners (those with an “ear to hear”) in all seven congregations, and one part to overcomers. Overcomers are Jewish believers who are alive after the rapture and endure the entire tribulation without suffering physical death.
Unlocking the Enigma
As noted, Jesus’ self-describing epithets in each of the seven letters’ salutations are consistent with, and confirm, the sequential nature of Jesus’ ministry to the messengers/congregations.
His epithets in letters one through three refer only to the first vision of Jesus given to John, implying Jesus’ ministry was exclusivelyas a priest to His local congregations in the Patmos generation (cf. Heb 3:1 for Jesus’ designation as High Priest). His epithets in letters four and five refer to items in the vision of Jesus plus a non-vision, rapture-oriented item included in each epithet. This suggests letters four and five refer to His Church universal anticipating its rapture. Jesus’ epithets in letters six and seven contain absolutely no reference whatsoever to items in John’s vision of Him, suggesting those congregations were not part of His Church. Letters six and seven’s epistolary epithets were consistent with Jesus’ anticipation of the impending messianic kingdom. If this is the case, the messengers/congregations addressed in letters six and seven consist of Jewish believers in the Diaspora that live throughout the tribulation leading up to the inauguration of Jesus’ kingdom.
In the closing of each letter, Jesus’ commanded the spiritually discerning readers or listeners from all the congregations to consider the closings of all seven letters as a single unit for careful and diligent study. Furthermore, in the combined closings, Jesus made seventeen promises to the believing diasporal Jews who would notexperience the first resurrection because they would enter alive His millennial kingdom (i.e., the “overcomers”). The complete list of promises may be compiled from all seven letters. The promises, however, are applicable only to those addressed in letters six and seven to reassure overcomers that they will enjoy the same benefits experienced by believers who die between the rapture and second coming (cf. Rev. 6:9; 7:9-14; and 20:4 for benefits to believers who die).
The purpose of Jesus’ command to the discerners in each of the seven letters’ closings was threefold. First, the command to the spiritually discerning was to alert all those reading or hearing The Revelation that a modicum of spiritual wisdom and understanding would be necessary for accurately interpreting all Jesus’ words in all seven letters.
Second, Jesus’ addressees faced an immediate need for discernment in His closings. Jesus established a consistent order in the closings of His first three letters by placing the command to the discerners at the forefront of each closing for emphasis, thereby preceding His promises to the overcomers that followed. After the first three letters, however, Jesus abruptly and permanently reversed that order, placing the promises to the overcomers ahead of His command to the discerners.
The abrupt order reversal indicated the first three letters formed a specific group while the last four letters formed a second specific group. This clear and unmistakable reversal suggests that the first group of three letters was likely about “the things which are,” while the second group of four letters probably contained information about “the things which shall take place after these things.” The separation in chronological sequence between present and future thus indicated by the closings matches perfectly the chronological separation indicated by the epithets of the salutations.
And third, Jesus use of the plural, “congregations,” suggested that the content of the letters could apply to congregations–both present and future–universally.
Using our interpretive labels, the first three letters (to Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum) were intended for the Patmos generation, while the last four letters (to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea) were addressed to the rapture/tribulation generation.
Contents of the Letters
The respective contents of the seven letters clearly substantiate this proposed breakdown between present/future generations as well as the division of the future generation between those believing Jews who experience the rapture and those who will experience the tribulation.
To illustrate, one of the issues Jesus mentioned to Ephesus’ messenger was men who falsely called themselves apostles (Rev. 2:2). Due to at least one true apostle still living at the time of the letter’s delivery, this problem was more likely a Patmos-generation problem than one for the rapture/tribulation generation (cf. 1 John 2:19).
Another example: the messengers to Ephesus and to Pergamum had to cope with the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15). The Nicolaitans were probably gentile believers. Nicolaitans had become followers of the first-century Antiochian proselyte to Judaism who later converted to Christianity shortly after Peter’s Pentecost sermon (cf. Acts 6:5). The problem with the gentile Nicolaitan believers was that they proved to be stumbling blocks for Jewish believers by eating things sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:14). This was an issue likely confronting congregations of the Patmos generation (cf. Acts 15:29) but an unlikely issue for congregations of the rapture/tribulation generation wherein the incidence of sacrifices to idols significantly diminished.
An example of those anticipating the rapture in the rapture/tribulation generation was Jesus’ direct addresses to the Jewish saints of Thyatira and Sardis to await His coming (Rev. 2:25; 3:3-4).
A final example of a Jewish believer living in the rapture/tribulation generation and awaiting Jesus’ second coming was the messenger to the messianic congregation in Philadelphia who was promised protection from the coming tribulation (Rev. 3:10). The messenger could well be one of the 144,000 having the seal of the living God on his forehead (Rev. 7:3-8).
Hence, from the epistles’ contents, one may be confident the following outline presents no contradictions.
A Proposed Outline
A proposed interpretative outline based on the above-described analysis is:
A. The Vision of Jesus, Rev. 1:12-20 (“the things which you have seen”)
B. The Patmos Generation, Rev. 2:1-17 (“the things which are”)
C. The Rapture/Tribulation Generation, Rev. 2:18-3:22 (“the things which will take place after these things”)
a. Rapture Jews, vss 2:18-3:6
b. Tribulation Jews, vss 3:7-22
Overall Contextual Considerations
Following the first vision and Jesus’ letter-writing interruption, Jesus’ heavenly messenger with the trumpet-like voice directed John to resume his reporting responsibilities with the invitation to “come up here and I will show you what must take place after these things” (Rev. 4:1). The phrase, “after these things,” most probably meant the epistolary material concerning earthly matters in Chapters 2 and 3 including the rapture, and organization of some Diasporal messianic congregations comprised on non-church saints.
The invitation concerned heavenly matters that John reported in Chapter 4 of The Revelation, starting with the throne scene. The twenty-four elders sitting on twenty-four thrones (Rev. 4:4) make a perfect contextual fit with the rapture of the Church having occurred for the congregations of Thyatira and Sardis. The congregations of Philadelphia and Laodicea awaiting the tribulation on earth, make another perfect contextual fit with the tribulation that was about to be initiated from heaven (Rev. 6:1ff.).
The salutations, closings, and contents of the seven letters support the proposed outline for The Revelation, Chapters 1-3, without inconsistencies or contradictions. The outline also fits easily and perfectly within the overall context of the early chapters of the rest of The Revelation. The baffling interpretive problem of the seven letters has been resolved.
Although written to diasporal Jews, the material may have appropriate application to gentiles within the church as well as believing gentiles who will face the tribulation after the Church is raptured.
A significant application may be drawn from resolution of the enigma. The application comes from Jesus’ words to His messenger at Sardis (Rev. 3:3): “. . . therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come for you.” The implication of Jesus’ warning is that the Lord expects His messenger to know the timing of His coming in the rapture—knowledge of which is contained in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (e.g., Matt. 24:32-44 which implies the year and month may be known while the exact day and hour for the rapture remains unknown).
It is important to recognize that Jesus’ use of the word “hour” to the Sardinian messenger does not refer to a 60-minute time interval. In Rev. 3:10 that follows closely Jesus’ first use of the word “hour,” Jesus again used the word “hour” in the context of a world-wide temptation. From further study in The Revelation, it is evident that the word “hour” designated a seven-year interval (cf. Dan. 9:27 and Rev 12:6 where Israel flees into the wilderness at the midpoint of the seven-year interval). Consistency in word meaning would suggest, therefore, that the hour of Jesus’ coming in the Sardinian letter refers to an indefinite—but recognizable—time period like the year and month.
Further, it is also important to note the spiritual state of the Sardian messenger. He has a name that he is alive, but Jesus’ assessment is that he is dead. What this likely meant was that this messianic congregational leader had a reputation for religious activity, but spiritually he was separated from God (perhaps out of God’s fellowship) resulting in ignorance of the time his Lord was coming for him.
Remedy for his spiritual condition was to “wake up.” Waking up was not the command to “arise from the dead” as it would have been had the messenger not yet been born again. The messenger’s secure place in Jesus’ right hand testified to his already being born again (Rev. 1:16). Those who are God’s adopted children were sometimes referred to as dead (cf. 1 Tim. 5:6). Dead believers can live a life both useless and unfruitful in their walk with the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Pet. 1:8).
The messenger’s ‘waking up’ means his re-establishing fellowship with the Father and with Jesus by remembering how he was born again by the hearing of faith, and then repenting of being perfected by the flesh through the works of the Law (cf. Gal. 3:2-3).
Finally, failure to respond to Jesus’ reproof threatens the spiritual health of some in the congregation (Rev. 3:2).