Cover image for Revelation down to earth : making sense of the Apocalypse of John
Revelation down to earth : making sense of the Apocalypse of John
Walhout, Edwin, 1926-
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Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans, [2000]

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viii, 254 pages ; 23 cm
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BS2825.3 .W27 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Dr. Edwin Walhout's lifelong interest in the book of Revelation comes to a mature climax in this volume, which shows convincingly how and why this elusive Christian scripture provides a comprehensive world-and-life view for understanding the world in which we live.

Arguing that the orientation of Revelation is present, not future -- a perspective that brings balance to much current writing on the topic -- Walhout explains John's enigmatic visions in Revelation in pastoral, down-to-earth terms. He carefully describes for readers what the apostle John saw, and he relates these compelling visions to Jesus, the gospel, and the church today.

According to Walhout, John was deeply concerned for the churches under his care, even though he was writing to them in exile, and he transcribed his visions in order to encourage them in their current persecution and trials. Through these strange yet powerful symbolic images, the churches were meant to grasp how God was working through Jesus, by means of the gospel and the power of Christ's Spirit, and how they in turn might cope in troubled times.

From this perspective, the challenging visions o

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this strangely deflationary commentary, Walhout, a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church, attempts to make Revelation applicable to the present. In the process, the text's strange and violent images become commonplace inconveniences. In Rev. 16, for example, an angel pours out a "bowl of God's wrath" onto the rivers and streams, which turn into blood as a judgment on those who have "shed the blood of your saints and prophets." Walhout's interpretation: "The rivers and springs represent the philosophies and policies we follow to gain a good life. If these policies require us to be... immoral... then the ultimate result will be disappointing." His thesis is that Revelation "reveals" that the church has been leading the world toward perfection, "so that the world will slowly be brought under the sway of Christ and away from the devil." The structure for his thesis is very orderly, but the text simply refuses to fit into his neat little boxes. Walhout's pastoral background may attract some conservative readers, but his interpretation will not; he radically reconfigures many traditional theological concepts, such as the Second Coming of Christ, hell, judgment and resurrection. While seeking real-life application for this enigmatic part of the Bible, Walhout has reduced the mysterious to the mundane, and traditional Christian hope to an astonishingly optimistic humanism. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Overview Why Study the Book of Revelation? Anyone who reads the book of Revelation for the first time and then asks seriously what it is all about must find the answer most elusive. Why is it even in the Bible, and what does it have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? What are Christians supposed to get out of it? Is it even worth trying to understand, especially since there are so many different explanations of it?     Revelation Down to Earth explains this difficult book of the Bible from a pastoral point of view. It focuses on seeing what John saw and trying to understand what he meant. The visions have a connection with Jesus and the gospel and the church. John was writing to actual churches composed of actual people. He expected them to gain by reading his book. Now, by reading Revelation Down to Earth, you also will come to understand and make sense of John's visions. And you will see what significance Revelation still has for us today. Where Does This Book Come From? It is no secret that the Revelation of John has been a very controversial book. Not only does it elicit wildly divergent interpretations still today, but it also has detractors aplenty who either reject it entirely, thinking it has no place in the Bible at all, or simply ignore it.     For the first few centuries, most Christian leaders accepted the book as having been written by the apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and who wrote the Gospel of John. They would, of course, give it high standing and do their best to make sense of it.     Then a few people began to doubt that this same John, the disciple, actually wrote both books. As a result, they stopped taking it seriously. They thought someone known as John the Elder (who wrote the three epistles of John but was not the original disciple) wrote Revelation. In our day there is even one major scholar who thinks it was written by disciples of John the Baptist.     The main argument against authorship by the apostle John is that the style of writing is considerably different from that of the Gospel of John, in such matters as vocabulary and grammar. It is impossible to ascertain for certain who the author is, so we will assume it is the apostle John. There actually are a few similarities in style between the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, such as the use of the terms Lamb and Logos (Word) to describe Jesus. Perhaps the style is not so divergent after all.     John lived in Jerusalem (or the surrounding area) until the Jewish rebellion in A.D. 66. This rebellion, of course, is the one the Jews expected Jesus to begin thirty-five years earlier. The Roman armies came and in time subdued the rebels, destroying Jerusalem and the temple by the year 70.     Sometime prior to that year John escaped to Ephesus. The church in this city, dating back to the time of Paul, had become one of the major centers of Christianity. John's status as one of the original disciples of Jesus doubtless garnered him immense respect and authority, so much so that he soon became the de facto bishop of the entire Roman province of Asia.     Persecution of Christians broke out in that area about the year 95, during the reign of Emperor Domitian (for what precise reason is uncertain), and John, as the leader of the Christians, was exiled to a Roman prison colony on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, about thirty miles southwest of Miletus. While on this island John continued to think about and pray for his churches on the mainland, wondering how he could continue to help them.     John was able to recall personally all the events of Jesus' life on earth. He had been with Jesus during his ministry and knew him well. He had recently written down all his memories in his Gospel. He would clearly remember the great climactic events of the last week of Jesus' life on earth -- the triumphant entrance into Jerusalem; the growing disillusionment of the disciples as Jesus refused to start a revolution; the trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus; and finally his resurrection and ascension into the sky. He would also vividly remember when God sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.     John would have reflected long and hard about the meaning of all those events. He would have tried to understand why they happened, and what effect Jesus wanted them to have on his disciples. The questions John wrestled with are the same questions Christians have today: Is Jesus still active in our world and in our lives? Is he somehow still with us and still powerful among us here on earth?     The book of Revelation is John's answer to these questions. It is his way of continuing to be of pastoral assistance to the churches of Asia, but also to anyone else who reads his book.     Revelation is a continuation of John's earlier writing. In his Gospel John wrote about Jesus as he lived and worked on earth. Now John continues to write about Jesus, but as he lives and works from heaven. The book of Revelation is a sequel to the Gospel of John. One deals with Jesus before the resurrection and ascension, the other deals with Jesus afterward.     In this respect these two documents are comparable to the two documents that Luke wrote, the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. The two Gospels, Luke and John, are somewhat parallel in that they both tell about Jesus' life on earth, prior to death and resurrection. In the same way, Acts and Revelation are somewhat parallel in that they tell about Christianity after the resurrection. Acts picks up the story of Christianity where the Gospel of Luke ends. It tells what happens on earth to the disciples and the early church up until Paul's imprisonment in Rome about the year 63. Revelation symbolically tells the story of Christianity from the viewpoint of what happens in heaven and how it affects those on the earth. Acts, therefore, is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke just as Revelation is the sequel to the Gospel of John.     There are obviously significant differences. Acts focuses on the disciples and what they did under the guidance of the Christian spirit. Revelation focuses on Jesus and what he is doing by means of his continuing Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles describes the growth of Christianity in descriptive historical language. The Revelation of John describes the progress of Christianity in symbolic visionary language.     Acts and Revelation are really describing the same things. Acts describes events from the point of view of real historical people living on the earth in faith and obedience. Revelation describes the same events, but from the point of view of what Jesus himself is doing on earth from heaven. That accounts for the great difference between the two books. John uses the language of visions to describe what Jesus is doing in heaven after he ascended.     The book of Revelation is the result of the angel showing John that whatever happens on earth is really the work of Jesus from heaven. John must learn to see that even his own banishment to Patmos is part of the overall scheme of things whereby Jesus is bringing all nations under his control. The angel wants John to see, and then to write down, how Jesus supervises and directs the course of events on earth.     We must see these puzzling visions as insights into how Jesus is bringing all people under his control, how he is healing the nations and drawing all men unto himself. Jesus is progressively sending the gospel to do its work within the civilizations of the world, so that the kingdom of this world is becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). We must see Jesus at work not only in the ancient world described in the Bible but also throughout history ever since, and specifically in our world today. John's message is that Jesus is Lord. He is Lord of all, "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:16). The powers he injected into life and history are the most powerful, controlling, dominant, and authoritative forces ever to influence the world, and they have continued to shape history ever since. The visions of Revelation are given to us to help us understand this. How This Book Is Put Together There is no unanimity among scholars concerning the major divisions of the Apocalypse of John. For example, the New International Version lists sixteen major divisions. Author Harry Boer finds thirteen. William Hendriksen and R. C. H. Lenski, both well-respected authors and scholars, divide the book into seven major divisions, but Lenski confesses to bafflement. Another excellent biblical scholar, Robert Mounce, has eleven divisions, including a prologue and an epilogue.     Another interpretation divides the book into three major sections, supposedly written at three different times by unknown persons. The "John" mentioned in the book is affirmed to be John the Baptist, but the actual authors are believed to be John the Baptist's disciples. According to this interpretation, chapters 4 through 11 were written first, during the time before John knew about Jesus. Chapters 12 through 22, since the name of Jesus is mentioned in this section, were supposedly written by John's disciples during or after the ministry of Jesus. The beginning chapters, 1 through 3, the letters to the churches, are said to have been written last, by followers of John the Baptist who had been converted to followers of Jesus.     There is another, more logical explanation for the organization of this book. Revelation is composed of a sequence of four major divisions, as follows: 1. Seven Churches (1:9-3:22) 2. Seven Seals (4:1-7:17) 3. Seven Trumpets (8:1-14:20) 4. Seven Bowls (15:1-22:5)     In addition to these major parts are a prologue and an epilogue. This division of the book is easy enough to see, and more important, it is not superimposed. This outline comes right out of the book itself.     There is a connection between these four parts. They are not four separate manuscripts merely juxtaposed to make one volume; there is continuity from one section to the next. The Divisions of This Book Connect with Each Other These four major divisions -- churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls -- are not only sequential but also cumulative. They not only describe things that happen one after another sequentially, but more importantly they describe things that build upon one another cumulatively . This concept is crucial to understanding the book of Revelation.     What happens in the second set of visions depends on what has already happened in the first set; what happens in the third set depends on what happens in the second; and what happens in the fourth set depends on what happens in the third. They are cumulative.     The sequence of churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls describes four stages in a process, and this process is meant to show how Jesus works on earth from heaven by means of the gospel. The visions of Revelation show how the gospel is working in the world and how we can actually trace its effects. The gospel is the most overwhelming and powerful force in the world: the force that controls the direction history is taking. Jesus is Lord of the nations even in our modern twenty-first-century world. The book of Revelation is given to us by God precisely to show us how Jesus is Lord and how he is exercising his control over the nations of the world.     There is, accordingly, embedded within this enigmatic book of Revelation a most profound and important philosophy of history, of real and actual historic events -- or rather a theology of history, since it involves the control of God through Jesus over our human history. The Main Point of the First Segment: Seven Letters This first set of visions represents the first stage in the process by which Jesus accomplishes his purpose. It is simple enough to understand. Jesus begins his conquest of the nations by establishing churches within the existing cultures of the human race. These churches are composed of people who have heard about Jesus, who recognize that in Jesus the purpose of God is definitively revealed, and who therefore follow Jesus as Lord and Master. They hear the gospel (the story of Jesus from birth to ascension), they believe the gospel, and they demonstrate their faith by finding the purpose of their lives in simple obedience to God. That is what a church is -- a group of believers who congregate around the Lord Jesus.     Churches are established through the efforts of people who spread the gospel by telling others about Jesus. They may be sent out formally, like Barnabas and Paul, or they may be ordinary people who simply tell neighbors and friends the story of salvation. It does not matter who tells the story; it matters only that it is told, and that those who believe truly surrender themselves to Christ.     God provided the Bible for us so that we can know Jesus as the fulfillment of the old covenant as well as the initiator of the new covenant. Word-of-mouth transmission of the gospel was sufficient in the early generations before the New Testament was written, but often stories that are passed on only by word of mouth can become garbled and embellished, sometimes so drastically that one can hardly find an element of truth in them anymore. Many such legends about Jesus did as a matter of fact come into being in what we call New Testament apocryphal literature. That is why we have the Bible as the definitive collection of scrolls about Jesus and the early churches. The Bible, including this book of visions, provides authentic accounts of the gospel.     The purpose of the first three chapters of Revelation, the letters to the churches, is to inform us that we must look at the churches, which are established (with all their weaknesses!) as the place where the healing of the nations begins. They comprise not just individuals coming to believe, but individuals joined together in the bonds of the Spirit of Jesus. That is the beginning stage of Christ's strategy as revealed to John. The Main Point of the Second Segment: Seven Seals The second stage is the opening of the divine scroll by the breaking of its seals. God the Father is holding a sealed scroll in his right hand, and no one can be found to open it until at last "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (5:6), breaks the seals and opens it. When he opens the seals one by one, great tragedies occur on earth.     This second set of visions, the seals, builds on the first set concerning the churches. First, Jesus sees to it that churches are established; second, he opens the heavily sealed scroll.     The scroll symbolizes God's purpose, especially as it relates to the human race. It speaks to the questions of why God created a human race in the beginning and what he expects the human race to accomplish. Sin complicated these expectations. Yet God's expectations must and will be fulfilled even in a world that constantly chooses to ignore and violate his wishes. God will reverse the decision of mankind as described in the story of Adam and Eve and persuade this voluntarily wicked race of humans to change its mind and choose righteousness.     The sealed scroll in this second set of visions represents God's plan to overcome and negate the Adamic decision of sin and to establish instead the true rule of God among the nations of the earth. This scroll contains God's eternal purpose for us, sealed so as to be unknown until Jesus comes to open it up for all to see. This second division builds on the previous visions of the churches; it shows what happens in the world when churches are established.     When the Lamb that had been slain opens the seals, horror and tragedy come pouring forth out of the scroll. There are four horses and their riders representing a sequence of disaster in which Christians are persecuted and the rich and mighty of this world are overthrown. The presence of churches in any given culture highlights two vastly different lifestyles at work, and therefore precipitates conflict and persecution.     When Christians live according to the law of God, they expose the wickedness of those who do not. The presence of churches in any community exposes the ungodly lifestyle of wickedness. More than that, they expose the track of sin downward into greater and greater ruin. And still more, wicked people turn against godly people and persecute them. Just as the Jews in Jesus' time mistreated Jesus, so too unbelievers have mistreated Christians ever since. The gospel shows this, indeed precipitates it. But the gospel also assures us that in the end the mighty and powerful forces of evil will cringe in fear, crying out for the mountains to fall on them so as to escape the wrath of the Lamb (6:16).     This second set of visions, the seals, is showing the second stage in the process by which God achieves his goal of healing the nations. First, churches are introduced into the communities of the world; second, the differences between two incompatible lifestyles are exposed, thus precipitating violent conflict between them, conflict which produces martyrs in the churches and will eventuate in the absolute vanquishing of wickedness. Jesus did say, after all, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). The Main Point of the Third Segment: Seven Trumpets The third set of visions entails the blowing of trumpets by seven angels. Actually this set of visions is the content of the opening of the seventh seal in the second set, so the continuity is obvious (Rev. 8:1-2). In the ancient world trumpets were blown to announce major events, such as the arrival of some great personage, or were used to call people to the temple or, in warfare, to summon soldiers to battle.     In Revelation the angels blow their trumpets and natural disasters develop on one-third of the earth, the sea, and the heavens: momentous conflicts between mythical creatures, a woman clothed with the sun taking refuge in the desert, great dragons arising out of the sea and out of the earth, and the harvesting of the earth by God's angels.     When churches in various parts of the world expose incompatible lifestyles (merely by showing their existence), they precipitate opposition. Open conflict occurs between the forces of evil and the forces of good. Enormous powers of wickedness appear in the civilizations being challenged by the gospel. Great suffering ensues, but God somehow manages to safeguard his churches so long as they flee to him, and in the end righteousness prevails. In this setting the trumpet call of God summons Christians (churches) to persevere, to fight the good fight of faith, and to live faithfully in spite of extreme opposition.     These visions do not merely describe one specific epoch of human history; they represent what happens always wherever the gospel goes. First, churches are established; second, churches expose two incompatible lifestyles and precipitate conflict; third, Christians are summoned to fight, to follow the Lord Jesus into the great battle against Satan and his followers.     From heaven Jesus is constantly starting new churches throughout the world. The effect of this is to continually expose the inadequacies and evils of the surrounding cultures that have been built on godlessness. This exposure of the nature and consequences of sin always results in determined opposition, spiritual and moral warfare within actual historical communities. Jesus calls us to persevere, to follow steadfastly, and to wear the white linen garments that symbolize the righteous deeds of the saints. These are the first three stages of God's plan as revealed to John through the visions of Revelation: the churches, the seals, and the trumpets.     The apostle John expected his readers in the seven churches of Asia Minor to be able to understand the significance of these visions in terms of their own relationship to God, to Jesus, to their cities, and to the Roman Empire. They would see themselves as the churches among which Jesus himself is walking, and by means of which Jesus is challenging the evils evident in the Greco-Roman way of life. They would understand that opposition and conflict are unavoidable at their stage of Christian witness, and they would be fortified to endure martyrdom in the assurance that the spirit of Christ will someday prevail in all peoples on the earth. They would hear the trumpets of God calling them to get involved in the great spiritual battle being waged throughout the earth. The Main Point of the Fourth Segment: Seven Bowls The fourth and final series of visions is that of seven angels pouring out the contents of the bowls they carry. The bowls contain plagues and are called the "bowls of God's wrath on the earth" (16:1). All the events in the entire book of Revelation originate in heaven. Jesus dictates the letters to the churches from heaven, the seals are broken on the scroll of God in heaven, angels in heaven sound the trumpets, and now more angels administer the wrath of God from heaven.     But the effect of all these events is felt on earth. Horrible disasters and catastrophes fall upon the wicked. All the terrible powers of evil gather for a mighty onslaught against the Lamb of God, and they are thoroughly and utterly defeated. The power of the devil and his hosts is completely annihilated while the city of God is constructed in eternal peace, eternal shalom.     There is a very important principle involved here. The action of God is seen specifically in the affairs of this earth. The entire sequence of events is the activity of God in the actual progress of human history. The events of history, including the things that are happening today in the modern world, fit into this four-step pattern that the book of Revelation is showing us. Discerning This Divine Pattern There are two distinct levels on which to see this fourfold process. The first pertains to any given national culture, to that of, say, the original Roman world or of the invading barbaric tribes of the Dark Ages, or even to that of modern Europe and America, or of Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, India, China, or Japan. If you trace the history of one distinct community or nation, and if the gospel has taken hold at all in that history, then you should be able to trace at least the beginning stage in that history.     The second level applies to the human race as a whole, to human history in its totality. Remember the great universalistic passages of the New Testament: disciple the nations (Matt. 28:19), every knee will bow (Rom. 14:11), he is Lord of all (Acts 10:36), and the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). What Genesis 1 tells us about man created in God's image and about the human responsibility to multiply and subdue the earth is as much a definition of the destiny of man as it is of the origin of man. God wants the entire human race, in its totality, to function as his image in the work of developing the potentials of nature. That is the goal not only of creation but also of redemption.     The book of Revelation describes the process by which God accomplishes the purpose he defined originally in the creation of the human race. The ongoing process of time and life and history is the process described so vividly and enigmatically in the Apocalypse of John.     The human race, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is surely far from the ultimate goal of freely choosing obedience to God in perfect shalom and righteousness. The ugly heads of grotesque beasts of evil are still emerging all over our culture. They deceive many, but they do not destroy the work of God. Even this is part of God's plan. It is, in fact, the gospel that triggers such blatant hatred of all that is good and noble and right and true.     We cry out, "How long, how long, how much longer does this intolerable situation have to last?" And we need to hear again the instruction to wait a little longer, as well as the command to prophesy again even though our stomachs turn sour. Above all, we need to see again, with John, that white stallion whose majestic rider bears the name "Faithful and True" and the "Word of God" (19:11-13), who is even now treading out the winepress of the wrath of God against sin and evil. Principles of Interpretation That Apply to This Book The following is a list of some of the basic hermeneutical principles that have been consciously employed in writing this explanation of the Apocalypse of John.     1. The book of Revelation as a whole is pastoral in nature. Everything in it possesses concrete, practical, immediate, personal, moral, and social value for the people who read it. It is not arcane religious speculation about the end of the world, nor is it abstract systematic theology. John wants all his readers to be strengthened to endure patiently the various afflictions that attend their service of the Lord. They must learn to align themselves with the strategy of God in the perennial conflict of good versus evil.     2. The entire document (other than the prologue and the epilogue) is visionary and therefore symbolic in nature. Even the seemingly more prosaic letters of chapters 2 and 3 are parts of visions and need to be treated as symbolic. The same applies to chapter 20, the much-discussed chapter on the millennium. All of these are strictly symbolic.     3. The visions of Revelation are intended to be existential throughout -- not the philosophy of existentialism, but rather existential in that they provide insight into the present existence of readers at any given time in history. If an interpretation of a given vision does not help to clarify something in our present world, then we are missing the point. The visions are designed, like parables, to show us things about life and history that we might otherwise never see.     4. The perspective of Revelation is consistently theistic . The visions show what God is doing in life and history by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Christ, and the Christian church. This is extremely important, especially in our age, which has largely lost the theocentric perspective. Even some Christians scoff at the claim to be able to trace what God is doing in our world. But God gives these revelations to Jesus, who passes them on to John, to the churches of Asia Minor, and to us. They show God at work through the ascended Lamb of God, at work from heaven but on earth.     5. The visions of this book need to be understood as descriptive of real events and happenings. They are historical in perspective. Some interpreters, building on this insight, have treated the sequence of visions as prophecies of successive epochs of history. For example, they believe certain visions predict the fall of the Roman Empire, and some visions describe the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the modern world.     That is not what is meant here by historical. The visions are historical in the sense that they describe processes that are really and truly happening within the countries of the world, wherever the gospel takes root. They are historical in the sense that the actual progress of human civilization is determined by the gospel and that the power of Jesus' Spirit is the decisive force in leading the human race slowly to its goal of imaging God in the way it conducts itself. History is going somewhere, and it is being directed by the King of kings and the Lord of lords (19:16)! Copyright © 2000 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. All rights reserved.