By Thomas Schreiner–

One of the dangers in interpreting Revelation is that many Christians throughout history have fallen into what I call newspaper eschatology. They read Revelation through the newspaper instead of reading it in light of the Old Testament. Contemporary events become the key for interpreting Revelation instead of the OT, and they ignore the fact that Revelation belongs to a genre of literature called apocalyptic.

Hal Lindsey says that past Christians couldn’t understand Revelation since it was written for the end times, and he thinks we live in those times. But I would argue that he is dramatically wrong in saying this. Revelation was written to Christians in the first century and they understood well what John taught.

Unfortunately, Christians are often caught up into speculation on these matters and go far beyond the Bible. In the early 1980s Edgar Whisenant wrote a book called Eighty-Eight Reasons why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Not only did he say it would happen in 1988, but he predicted the very day—Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year. Over four and a half million copies of the book were distributed and many waited with great anticipation. Of course, Jesus didn’t come on that day, but Whisenant was not deterred. He said that he accidentally miscalculated and predicted that Jesus would come in 1989. Whisenant continued to revise his predictions, setting dates for 1993, 1994, and 1997. Whisenant clearly went beyond the things that were written, but sadly too many Christians were taken in by his predictions. Christians could have been spared from such delusions if they had remembered Jesus’ words that no one knows the day or the hour.

Revelation 10 warns us against undue speculation, reminding us that we must be content with what God has revealed to us. God has revealed all we need to know for life and salvation, and yet there is much that we do not know. Let’s read Revelation 10.

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3 and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4 And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5 And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6 and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7 but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. 8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”

1. Some things are hidden from us (vv. 1-4).

This message is delivered by a glorious angel. Indeed, this angel is so glorious that some think the messenger described is the angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ. But I don’t think this refers to Jesus for two reasons. (1) Nowhere else in Revelation or in the rest of the NT for that matter is Jesus Christ ever called an angel. (2) More importantly, it is hard to see how this can be Jesus when the angel in v. 5 swears by God the creator. This shows that the angel himself is not the creator. If the angel were God, he could swear by himself, but since he isn’t God he swears by another. The angel is described in glorious terms to emphasize that he comes with divine authority. He descends in a cloud, and the only other person who descends on a cloud in Scripture is God and Jesus as the Son of Man.

The angel has a rainbow over his head and the rainbow is associated with God in Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1. His face being like the Son reminds us of the Son of Man whose face shines like the sun in Revelation 1. His feet being on both the land and sea indicate that his message is not a local one. It encompasses the whole world. And his voice which roars like a lion reminds us of authoritative prophecy. As Amos 3:8 says, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” So, the words of this angel are of immense importance. He comes with the glory and authority of God himself. His message relates to the whole world.

But before we hear the words of the angel, we are given another message. The seven thunders boom out a sound, and John is about to write what they say, but he is told to seal up the sound they make. The word “seal” means that he is not to disclose what happens with the seven thunders. We see this meaning of the word “seal” in Dan. 12:4, “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.” In other words, the full import of what was revealed to Daniel will only be evident in the future. And we are told in Rev. 22:10 that what Daniel has sealed should now be unsealed, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near.” The word “seal” has the same meaning as we saw in Dan. 12, but this time the message is not to be hidden but disclosed to all.

On the other hand, in our verse for today what the seven thunders prophesy is to be hidden. As we see in v. 7 it is part of the mystery of God that is not revealed to us. I take it from this verse that there are some things to come in the future that are not disclosed to us. Revelation does not give us a complete map of what will occur. There are still surprises that await us in the fulfillment of prophecy. Therefore, we should beware of being too confident about how prophecy will be fulfilled.

Many in the 1990s predicted Saddam Hussein would be the antichrist, and blockbuster books were written which made Iraq rather than the Soviet Union the center of the fulfillment of prophecy. But such readings of the Bible clearly fall into the error of newspaper eschatology. As one person remarked, “there is no getting around the fact that much prophecy literature slides easily into the truly bizarre. In this literature, traces of the Antichrist lurk behind the Common Market and computerized banking, and the Yale Skull and Bones Society and the Catholic Knights of Malta join hands in a vast conspiracy.”

We are reminded by the seven thunders and the many mistakes Christians have made in history, not to get too specific. The end is coming, but not everything is disclosed to us. We must beware of setting bogus time tables and falling prey to wild speculation. When our so-called predictions don’t come true, they can hurt people’s faith. Both Jesus and Paul warned us not to be deceived by false teaching.

2. The fulfillment of the mystery (vv. 5-7).

We have already seen in vv. 1ff how glorious the angel is. And now this angel whose feet are planted on the land and sea raises his hand to heaven, and he swears by the creator God. The angel emphasizes that God is deathless. He lives forever and ever. And he is the creator of all that exists. He is the living God and he is the sovereign God. All of history is under the control of the one who created all things. Prophecy is not the working out of some mechanical plan. What we see in prophecy are the wise purposes of God being fulfilled. We do not fully understand his plan. We see through a mirror dimly. But we put our trust in God the creator. We are confident, even if we do not and cannot fully grasp his ways that his ways are wise and his ways are good. Life is full of puzzles and heartaches and mysteries. But we are not the victims of blind chance or impersonal forces. We can cast all our cares upon God because he cares for us. All the whys of our hearts are not answered in this life, but we put our trust in the one who loves us deeply and who knows the end from the beginning. His purposes are being established. His will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. There are many frustrations in life—in our health, our jobs, our family, and our relationships. But we are called upon to trust the wisdom of God and the love of God, even if we do not yet fully understand the mind of God.

Anyway, the angel proclaims the message that there will be no more delay in v. 6. In other words, history is coming to an end. The angel declares that God is wrapping it all up with the seventh trumpet. God’s mystery will be fulfilled, just as he declared it to his servants the prophets. These verses warn us about a mistake we could make on the other side. We have already seen that there have been many strange things said about prophecy throughout Christian history. So, we could be tempted to ignore the whole thing. I think that is what many Christians have done. They have seen many abuses in what people have done with the book of Revelation and have therefore ignored it entirely. They rarely think of the second coming of Christ. Prophecy plays no role in their lives at all.

But Jesus warned us to always be ready for his return. We are to long for his return and pray, “Come Lord Jesus.” We are to always live in the light of the end. That doesn’t mean that we go up to the hills and wait for Jesus to appear. I guess this story about Martin Luther is apocryphal, but we can certainly wish that he had said it, since it reflects so well what the scriptures teach. Supposedly Luther was asked, “What would you do if the Lord came today?” He allegedly said, “I would plant a tree and pay my taxes.” That may seem to be a strange answer to you, but what he meant was that he lived every day in light of the end.

What would you do if Jesus came today? Do your job to the glory of God! Raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Love your wife as Christ loved the church. Submit to your husband as to the Lord. And unbeliever, give your life to Jesus Christ. Be ready for the judgment to come.

Just because some people have made mistakes in predicting the end, don’t fall into the foolish error of thinking that history will last forever. One day all prophecies will be fulfilled, even if we don’t know now exactly how they will be fulfilled. Look to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Don’t trust your own goodness, your own wisdom, and our your own virtue. It isn’t enough, for God demands perfection. You need to belong to one who perfectly pleased God, so your righteousness is in him rather than in yourself. Only if you belong to him will you be ready for the judgment day.

3. Prophecies of judgment (vv. 8-11)

The end will come with the seventh trumpet, but vv. 8-11 inform us that John has more to prophesy before the end comes. John takes the scroll from the angel standing on the land and the sea. He is told to take the scroll and eat it. In his stomach it is bitter, but it tastes sweet in his mouth, as sweet as honey.

The background to what John says in Ezekiel 2-3. Let’s begin with Ezek. 2:7.

And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house. 8 “But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” 9 And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. 

And Ezekiel 3:1 reads,

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. 4 And he said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them. 5 For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel– 6 not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you. 7 But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.

It is clear from both Ezekiel and Revelation that the word is sweet because it is the word of God. But it is a bitter because it is a word of judgment. John has words of judgment to proclaim against many peoples and nations and languages and kings.

I think the word “against” is better than the word “about” in v. 11, emphasizing that John has a word of judgment to proclaim. Hence, the word is a bitter and hard word. But at the same time the word is sweet, because God’s words are always sweet, for they reflect his character.

Jeremiah preached words of judgment to Israel, but he also loved God’s words. He said in Jer. 15:14, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.” Even the hard words of God are a joy and a delight. God’s judgments finally bring us joy. Why do they bring us joy? Because God’s judgments are always right. Sinners deserve final judgment, and we see the glory of God’s righteousness and justice in the judgment of sinners. When we see the judgments of God we will, as Revelation 19, says sing out Hallelujah. We will praise his name for making all things right. We will not have any doubts about the judgment of God.

Do you think anyone will be in hell who should not be there? Will there be a single person in hell about whom you will question the Lord? Will he need your advice and your wisdom to make things right? No, brothers and sisters. He will not need any words of wisdom from us. He will not call a council to get our input on what should be done with the world. His judgments, which are declared in Revelation, are right and true. He is the Holy One of Israel. There is a bitterness in judgment, for it is a hard word. But there is also a sweetness in it, for it is a right word. It is a holy word. It is a fitting word.

So, let us entrust ourselves fully to the Lord. Let us warn our neighbors and friends and family of the judgment to come. Now is the day of salvation.  If you believed that your home town was to be bombed and destroyed tomorrow, you would urgently warn those around you. So too, we must warn those around us of the judgment to come. They may ignore us. They may think we are only joking like Lot’s sons. But we want to show our love to others by warning them.

Children, are you telling your friends in school about the judgment to come? Employees, do you tell co-workers about the judgment to come? Naturally we don’t only speak of the judgment. We also tell the good news of deliverance from judgment in Jesus Christ. And we have to leave the results to God.

I was talking to a neighbor the other day I hadn’t met and started talking about the things of the Lord and heaven and hell. We had a pleasant conversation up to that point, and he was very nice throughout, but then he suddenly told me he had to go inside. I don’t know for sure if it was because I mentioned heaven and hell, but that is the point in the conversation at which he decided he needed to go inside.

We tell people about God’s judgment and salvation because we love them. For even though many have been mistaken about prophecy, the final day is coming. Life on earth will not last forever. Praise God! Come Lord Jesus!

Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are RomansPaul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.

Read blog posts by Thomas Schreiner here.