In the previous post in this series, we examined what Jesus had to say about what he called “the Great Tribulation” in Mt 24:21 -- a time in the future “such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will” [Greek: eos tou nun oud’/kai ou me genetai]. We observed that based on the events to date in recorded history, these words could not be interpreted as having been fulfilled at some point before the present. Such a time of trial and tribulation, if Jesus’ prophecy is correct, would have to belong to the future.
In this post, I want to demonstrate from other sources in the Bible that Jesus was not taking liberties with Old Testament scripture, or going out on a limb, when he foretold the time of the “Great Tribulation.” (To follow the discussion below, you should have before you the second handout downloaded from the link in the previous post; if you have not yet downloaded it [a .pdf file], you may do so here.)
Most scholars agree that this time of great tribulation, which Jesus says will occur shortly before He appears in glory at his second coming (Greek: parousia), can be identified with the “time of Jacob’s troubles” spoken of by various authors in the Old Testament (see page 4 of the second handout linked above). I will not go into the details, but in reading these passages (Jer. 30:7, Dan. 12:1-4, Zech. 14:1-2) anyone should be able to see the degree to which they support Jesus’ description given earlier.
The principal Biblical testimony as to the horror of the “Great Tribulation”, however, comes from the last book of the Bible. Often referred to mistakenly as “the Revelation of St. John the Divine,” as the King James version titles it, its proper title when translated from the Greek is: “The Revelation of Jesus the Messiah to John.” Thus the things revealed in this book stem from Jesus the Messiah; John is the amanuensis.
There is much, however, that can confuse the present-day reader of Revelation -- it is a style of writing called “apocalyptic literature” which has no parallel anywhere else in the New Testament. (The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek ἀποκαλύπτω [apokalypto], a verb which carries the meaning of “to disclose, uncover, make known; reveal”.) The hallmark of apocalyptic writing is an abundance of vivid imagery, visions and fantastical descriptions -- something akin to how one would describe a dream that one felt was prophetic, yet whose meaning went beyond our ordinary understanding.
Revelation is perhaps the one book in the Bible that gains most in our understanding by being read and listened to aloud. Like the famous radio script of Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds, the words, symbols and events as narrated stimulate our imaginations and mental abilities as no other part of the Bible can, even to the point of overwhelming our ability to synthesize the whole of it -- and hence leaving us uncertain and confused by what the author intended to convey.
The key to making sense of such writing is to realize that it presents a narrative that is not linear -- from one event to the next, in a rational, chronological sequence -- but rather is cyclical in character, in the form of an ever-widening spiral. There are many objects and events presented in groups of seven (the lampstands, the churches, the seals on the scroll, the angels, the trumpets, the bowls of wrath), and these form the basis for the structural cycles around which the book presents its message of how the End Times unfold, on all levels at once.
Thus John was not describing End Times events from a single vantage point. He constantly shifts his perspective from that of earth to that of heaven and back again. Things that he narrates as happening on earth have simultaneous parallels in heaven, but the two tracks are circular instead of linear. They keep looping back on themselves, and instead of returning to the same point, each cycle takes us to a new level of intensified distress, calamity and destruction that leads inevitably to the final replacement of heaven and earth by a whole new creation. In each cycle John presents to us, it is the seventh and final stage that is either the climax of what came before, or else the transition to the next level of upwardly spiraling intensity. I shall try to illustrate these points in the discussion that follows.
The handout linked above presents (pp. 4-6) most of the text of Revelation chapters six through nine, parts which in my opinion depict and corroborate principal elements of the Great Tribulation that Jesus described in much more abbreviated fashion to his disciples in the Olivet Discourse of the synoptic Gospels (reviewed in the three earlier posts in this series). The excerpts begin with the unsealing of the scroll, and continue up to the point of the blowing of the last (seventh) trumpet.
The text is presented without chapter and verse numbers so that the reader may experience its impact as a verbal whole, whether as read aloud or internally. I suggest you read it through aloud to yourself (or others, as well) before starting on the commentary that follows. It will also help to review the corresponding passages from the Olivet Discourse that precede it, on pages 1 through 3 of the second handout.
The apocalyptic cycles that we encounter in this reading are the unfolding of the End Times scroll in heaven, as Jesus Christ (the Lamb who alone is worthy to do so) breaks its seven seals, with each unsealing followed by a calamity on earth. The breaking of the seventh seal takes us to a new level of intensified events and the start of a new apocalyptic cycle -- the seven angels who are each to blow a shofar, a ceremonial rams-horn trumpet. These in turn generate another series of woes on earth, up until the silence (in heaven) before the seventh angel sounds his shofar.
Remember, as one would experience things in a dream, these events are not occurring on a linear timescale. What is more important to John's vision is that he experiences them on many planes and dimensions all at once, but he can narrate them only sequentially, as they come to his memory in the retelling of what Jesus Christ and the heavenly angels revealed to him. The key to understanding his presentation is, as I say, appreciating how the various cycles of events overlap and interrelate.
The groups of seven also may be analyzed (if it seems helpful) into a group first of four, then of three. Thus with the breaking of the scroll's seven seals, the first four correspond to the celebrated “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, which I submit signify the events Jesus described (Mt 24:8) as “the beginning of the birth pangs.” The first two horsemen bring conquest and war (“wars and rumors of wars” in Mt 24:6), while the second two bring famine and death (“plagues and famines” in Lk 21:11).
With the breaking of the fifth seal, the scene shifts suddenly from earth to heaven, and we see all “the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the word of God and the testimony they had given.” These correspond to the passages in Mt 24:9-10, Mk 13:9 and 11, and Lk 21:12-16, in which Jesus warns that his followers will suffer betrayal and death on account of the testimony they give of their faith.
I omit discussion of the sixth seal in this cycle, because it parallels the “Day of the Lord” texts which I propose to address in my next post. As is characteristic of the events toward the end of a given cycle, they serve as a ramp to the next level in the increasing spiral of intensity. In this case also, the breaking of the seventh seal provides the transition to the next group of seven calamities, as the seven angels “who stand in God’s presence” prepare to take up their trumpets.
With each blast of a trumpet, the tribulations on earth intensify. Apart from the the “great signs and wonders” of Mt 24:24 and the flashes of lightning in Lk 17:24, John’s imagery here goes beyond what Jesus gave specifically in his Olivet Discourse, although He described it in Mk 13:19 more generally as “a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created until now, and never will.”
As with the seals, so the first four trumpets relate to terrible physical calamities occurring on earth. The fifth trumpet involves a shift of scene -- from earth not to heaven this time, but to the Abyss, from which smoke and hordes of stinging locusts come forth. The sixth trumpet presages, as we shall see, the Day of the Lord again, and the seventh trumpet ramps us up to the next level of intensity: the seven bowls of God’s wrath, poured out in judgment on those remaining unrepentant on earth:
The rest of the people who survived these plagues did not repent of the works of their hands or stop worshiping demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which cannot see, hear, or walk. They did not repent of their murders, their deeds of witchcraft, their acts of sexual immorality, or their thefts.Beginning with his text in what we know as chapter 10, John mingles images of the heavenly and earthly events surrounding the parousia of the Messiah with the earlier events preceding it. Thus in Rev 10:6-7 the angel “standing on the sea and the land” announces:
… there will be no more delay; on the contrary, in the days of the sound from the seventh angel when he sounds his shofar, the hidden plan of God will be brought to completion, the Good News as he proclaimed it to his servants the Prophets.But in chapter 11, John shows the outer court of the Temple still in the possession of Gentiles as the two witnesses God has sent to convert and punish them are given 1,260 days in which to accomplish their mission. We are again in the days of the Great Tribulation, in which the two beasts (elsewhere called the Antichrist and the False Prophet) make their appearance, slay the two witnesses, and then have a final 1,260 days to impose their degradations (including the “mark of the beast”) on mankind and their defilements upon the Temple (ch. 13).
Chapter 14 again contains a description of the events immediately preceding the parousia, including a total destruction of Jerusalem, “Babylon the great” (identified as Jerusalem in Rev 11:2 and 8) -- which has become polluted entirely with the sacrileges and desecrations committed in the final days of the Great Tribulation, including the murder of tens of thousands of those who remained faithful unto death, to receive their reward in heaven. (See Rev. 6:11, and 13:10 [“This is when God's holy people must persevere and trust!”].)
Note (for those who believe the Rapture will take place before any of the faithful have to suffer through the Tribulation) how many of God's faithful elect are described as meeting their mortal deaths on earth during these final days. It is difficult to read any kind of dispensation for Christians into all of these passages -- and wait until we consider Jesus’ own words about the Rapture in the next post.
These events with the two beasts and Babylon, keep in mind, are best read as an overlay on those already described above, associated with the seals and the trumpets. They are all happening in parallel, although John describes them (as he has to) in separate passages of his book (remember: chapters and verse numbers came much later; the original had neither, like the excerpts given in the handout).
In such a tumult of catastrophic images, it can be difficult to draw precise parallels, or establish a definitive timeline. But that is not the point. Unlike the authors of the Gospels, John in Revelation is not giving us a narrative of events, but more of a kaleidoscope of what he saw and heard all at once in the vision Jesus gave him of the final days. The emphasis is on the sheer magnitude of the horrors that befall the unrepentant and the stiff-necked, even as those horrors multiply and intensify around them. John contrasts those images with the beatific faithfulness, even unto death, of Jesus’ followers, and the blessed and joyous reception that constitutes their reward in heaven.
The next and final post in this series will focus on the terrifying “Day of the Lord” as foretold in the Old Testament, and the parousia as Jesus describes it to his disciples, and shows it to John in his vision.