Why the Rapture And The Second Coming Will Not Happen Tomorrow
Seaborn Hall, 12/12/06
Note: the author wrote this, part three of a three-part series, while pursuing a Master’s Of Theology at Talbot School of Theology in the late 1990’s. The final draft was finished in 2006.
Revelation Is Composed Of Two Different Cycles Of Prophecy
In truth, the interpretation of the book of Revelation and issues in it like the Tribulation, the Rapture, and the Return of Christ have been clouded for centuries. Opinion has been and is still divided among scholars who know the material best. Even the renewal in parts of the church over the last two decades has done little to illumine the book as a whole.
The result? Pastors and scholars remain divided over its meaning and in the Western world the church is still more influenced by the “Left Behind” approach than any other view.
Revelation is actually made up of two different cycles of prophecy. The first cycle is initiated by Jesus at 1:9 and continues through 11:18. It is largely made up of a supernatural encounter and a vision. The second cycle of prophecy is a prophetic measurement initiated by the strong angel and the voice from heaven.
It can also be broken up into several subunits: the 3 signs, the bowls, and what we call the Wings section. Furthermore, Revelation is a conditional prophecy – an invitation, if you will – that has yet to be fully understood and accepted.
The implications of looking at Revelation in this way are enormous. Structure affects context. Context affects interpretation. This structure helps us see the beginnings of answers to questions in Revelation that have divided us for ages: “Where is the church?” “Where is the rapture?” and, “Will the church go through the tribulation?”
Where is the church?
Most dispensationalist interpretive attempts have had difficulty identifying the church in Revelation, except in limited form. For instance, the Greek word for church, ekklesia, only appears once in the book after 3:22 – in the last chapter, at 22:16.
The difficulty in finding the church in Revelation has had to do with our withdrawal into the safety of the literal-historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture. Though this hermeneutical system has a solid history, especially when applied to letters or narratives, it has caused its adherents to look at the structure of Revelation in a linear fashion, following a supposed literal interpretation of 1:19. This approach also discourages anything other than a literal interpretation of a word, verse, or section unless the immediate text explicitly defines it as a symbol (sometimes even ignoring context and historical/cultural implications in decisions to interpret literally).
One of the questions here is, “Is John seeing literal events happening in the future and recording them in the best way he knows how, or is he seeing a vision full of symbols meaningful both to the church of his time and today? This question is beyond the scope of this article, but even the literal/historical system of interpretation would demand the later, because otherwise the letter loses its present meaning to the audience to which it was addressed. This would violate a basic hermeneutical principle.
The more important question then becomes, “How can Revelation be equally applicable to the First Century church as well as to the church of today?” Partially, the answer is – if it’s a conditional prophecy, an invitation that has not yet been understood and accepted. The other part of the answer is, of course, if its primarily symbolic, speaking to the situation of the NT church and also the church of today.
The problem with this is that Revelation is full of symbols, there is at least one section, 4:1-9:21, that’s a supernatural vision, and other sections that are signs or something else present equally difficult interpretive puzzles. In the past, we have been scared to interpret unexplained symbols as symbols, and we have misinterpreted words or passages as symbolic that were never intended to be interpreted that way. If we can agree on the context given by a proven structure, much of this confusion may end.
The Church In Revelation
The church is found in chapters 7-9, but in a much different form than we are used to thinking of it or seeing it. The structural context for this section of the book is the vision of 4:1-9:21. The army of locusts of 9:1 and following are not an army of demons, or some other real invading army (like the Chinese, as Lindsay suggests – which should bring relief to a lot of Chinese believers) marching down the Euphrates, but a honed, war machine with one purpose: to bring the world to repentance. This is a picture of the future church.
In fact, chapter 7 and chapter 9 give us a picture of the church in four different stages: (1) a remnant that produces (2) a multitude, a multitude that becomes (3) an army of believers that are trained, and an army that is honed into (4) an army of overcomers from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people.
It is assumed by most theologians that this is a demonic army or that it describes literal war and that this army comes out of the abyss of 9:1. However, note the center of a smaller chiasm [literary section] at 9:7, “…and their faces were like the faces of men…” Also note that at 9:1f, locusts come out of the smoke, not out of the pit (a prison for demons). Smoke comes out of the pit, and the locusts come out of the smoke: smoke is of the air (spirit), locusts are of the earth (material).
Revelation 9:2 says, “…and smoke went up out of the pit…” and 9:3 says, “…And out of the smoke came forth locusts upon the earth…”. This is obscured irony. The smoke is demonic; but the demonic plays a part in producing the most terrifying army the world has ever seen; an army of serious believers. Exactly how this happens is not addressed – at least not in this section. The angel of the abyss of 9:11 is not a demon, but a destroying angel – probably the 5th angel of 9:1 who gives the key – different from, but like the angel of the Exodus referenced at Hebrews 11:28.
Further proof of this view is that the Greek words for 200 million at 9:16 (NASB), literally, myriads of myriads, is only linked with God and His people in its use throughout the rest of the book. The 144,000 sealed bondservants of chapter 7 are not that literally, in all probability, but a multitude that no one can number; they are, or will become the myriads of myriads of chapter 9. [The dispensationalist view insists that the 144,000 of chapter 7 are literal Jews; there are a number of reasons why this is not a valid interpretation – in addition to the well known fact that this is an illegitimate listing of the 12 tribes – but, there isn’t space here to address them].
Note also the common symbols that link chapters 4-5, & 9: Lion, faces of men, crowns, 4 angels/4 creatures, golden bowl/golden altar, Lamb/army, myriads/myriads, and the Greek word horaseis or vision, which only appears these two places in the book. These are all things associated with God and His people, not demons or literal war. These passages in Revelation give us, therefore, part of the picture of the future of the church: a multitude of overcomers from every nation, tongue, tribe, and peoples.
Will the church go through the tribulation? Where is the rapture?
The basic issue in answering these questions is this: does the derived structure imply an answer to these questions and does it resolve contradictory opinions of different interpretive approaches? For instance, according to James Horvath, who surveyed many church leaders’ views in his book, He’s Coming Soon!, most charismatics are pretribulationists. These include Marilyn Hickey, Dr. Roy Hicks, and Oral Roberts (He’s Coming Soon!, James Horvath, 1995, Creation House, Lake Mary, Fl, 89).On the other hand, both Pat Robertson and Jack Hayford appear to support a posttribulation rapture (according to quotes in tapes and articles). Most non-Charismatics who call themselves Evangelical would be pretribulationists.
The whole problem with the timing of the rapture in Revelation that is almost never discussed is the fact that under the dispensationalist model there is a contradiction between John’s eschatology and Paul’s eschatology. Paul believed that the rapture would come with the trumpet of God, specifically, the last trumpet (see 1 Cor 15:51,52 and 1 Thess 4:16,17). But the last trumpet in Revelation is at 11:15. The Greek word for trumpet does not even appear in the book after this (from chapters 12-22). The Greek word for trumpeteers appears at 18:22; this is the closest occurrence of the word after 11:15. Therefore, most interpreters of Revelation have to do some sort of leap of logic to link the 7th trumpet with the rest of the book.
The structure explained here shows the ending of the first cycle of prophecy as 11:15-18. The first cycle of prophecy is a complete picture. Therefore, 11:15, the last trumpet of Revelation, is the end. (This means the 7 bowls of plagues of chapter 16, do not come out of the 7th trumpet, as many believe.) Since Paul said, basically, that the rapture would come at the last trumpet, 11:15 is the rapture. Otherwise, there is a contradiction in what the Bible says about the end times!
Some theologians explain away this contradiction by saying that the trumpets – Paul’s and John’s – are not the same, but this seems both convenient and illogical. Would God purposely confuse His people by giving them mixed signals when He has said that the day will not come as a thief to His faithful and that they will know the signs of the times?
Therefore, the church will go through the tribulation and the rapture either immediately precedes or coincides with the Return of Jesus. Note that this also makes more sense of the phrase at 11:14, “…behold, the 3rd woe is coming quickly. ” This phrase only appears in other passages of Revelation in association with statements by Jesus or His angel. In this case, the 3rd Woe, or the 7th trumpet, is Jesus when He returns in wrath.
Revelation Tells Us That Jesus Has A Goal For His Church – Before He Returns
Looking at Revelation in this new way also gives us insight into other issues of the book: “Who are the two witnesses?” “Are there two resurrections and what are they?”, and, “What about the millennial issue – is the 1000 year period of chapter 20:1-6 literal or symbolic?”
These questions will be addressed and explained in future installments. For now, its enough to see that Revelation is an invitation to the church just as applicable to us today as it was to the first century believers to which it was written. When the church answers this invitation as a united body of believers from every nation – as the prepared Bride – this will usher in the Return of the Lord.
In his book, Horvath says, “The practical side of the doctrine of imminence is that Jesus could return at any moment, and that fact should cause us to live holy lives.” But the book of Revelation has a different story to tell. It says that God has a goal to accomplish in the church and the world before the rapture and His return and that He is still waiting to accomplish it.
Revelation Tells Us Jesus Is Not Coming Back Tomorrow – At Least For Now
What we can say with finality is this: Jesus is not coming back today or tomorrow or next week or next year. Not on the clouds with believers to judge the earth, at least. There must be a unified body of believers from every nation, people, tongue, and tribe – overcomers – and then, and only then, will most of these events begin to take place. And then, they will take place quickly.
Revelation shows us that true imminence is only effective in individual response to God’s invitation to believers to breed corporate unity. This must come out of an unparalleled intimacy with Him that results in humility and purity of character. These are the overcomers who will inherit this prophecy.
This is a different way of looking at Revelation and it gives us reason for expectation and hope as well as motivation to seek and to serve Jesus now. Viewing the book in this way takes us out from behind illogical traditional opinion and helps us to understand Revelation as an invitation to the church from its King – a Head who wants intimacy with His body – that is still in effect today.