Every time I think I’m about to wrap things up and finish with a picture of the New Heaven and New Earth, something else pops in my head that I know I need to talk about. I can assure you that this is the beginning of the end. It may not be the last post regarding this topic, but we are certainly getting close! I need to go back and specify some things regarding eschatology (theology of last things), or rather, how it is interpreted.
Before we can really get into the meat of the message, we need to build up to it with this first point of emphasis to show where it stems from. Once again, it is regarding the rapture of believers, when we are “caught up” into the air to be forever with the Lord. You’ve heard what I have to say regarding when the Bible says that will happen if you have read my Terms and Conditions, Part 1 and 2. (The Day of the Lord). But I didn’t spend too much time discussing where other people say the Bible describes the rapture taking place.
I am going to quote a man that I highly respect and admire. He is a man that I truly believe is a great teacher of the Word. I’m quoting him because I know that even he is human and makes mistakes. He is not God. BUT, just because I disagree with him on this matter does not mean that I’m canceling him, think he’s a heretic, and that his ministry is fraudulent. I’m quoting him because I desire truth more than anything, and if something untrue is being presented as truth then I will absolutely challenge it.
Tim LaHaye is responsible for the fictional book series called, “Left Behind”. You’ve probably heard of it because it was so widely spread. It spread fear across the world that millions of people will simply vanish without warning in an instant, and no one would know what happened. I’d love the movies much more if they just left it at being a work of fiction and didn’t claim to hold on to theological truths. The simple reason for that is because that is not what the Bible teaches regarding the rapture.
“Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.” – 2 Thess. 2:3
But I’m not going to judge him on His work of fiction, rather, I will on his “nonfiction” writing. In Tim LaHaye’s book called, “Revelation Unveiled”, we are told that this book serves as the “Biblical Foundation for the Best Selling Left Behind Series”. It is in this book where we see the scriptural support for his end-times beliefs that are now so widely spread amongst my fellow believers. I seek to challenge what he considers is his scriptural foundation regarding this. Let’s see if it holds true.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ Immediately I was in the spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (Rev. 4:1-2)
Then he states,
“It was no coincidence that the first thing to happen after John has described the seven churches (which we have seen represent not only a message to each individual church but also seven periods of church history) is his being taken up into heaven. Inasmuch as John was the last remaining apostle and a member of the universal church, his elevation to heaven is a picture of the Rapture of the Church just before the Tribulation begins.”
Why is it no coincidence? Because Tim already had a presupposed idea in his mind that this must represent the rapture happening before the tribulation. There is no textual evidence to suggest that. John was not describing what will happen to everyone else immediately after the letters to the churches, representative of the church ages, as Tim would suggest. This was an isolated event that John alone experienced. Tim did to this text what many people fall into doing, which is to manufacture meaning into a text that the text itself does not produce. The reason for this is because LaHaye recognized that there is a future event that we are told believers will avoid. If we are told that we will avoid the wrath of God, then this must be where we are plucked out, right? But that’s based on the false premise that the Great Tribulation is God’s wrath. He, along with just about all others who believe this, correctly point out a problem, but incorrectly diagnose it. Under the proper biblical definition there becomes an unmistakable distinction between tribulation and wrath. This is obvious all throughout scripture until revelation, where people decide to blend the two to fit their eisegesis. Because of this, Matthew 24 becomes disqualified as being the rapture and is reserved as being the second coming of Christ, according to them. Rev. 7:9-17 (though contextually clear in every way) must not be talking about the rapture, according to them. And Rev. 14:14-16 no longer reflects the rapture according to them (Though also contextually clear). All of this is because we messed up our understanding of God’s wrath with our tribulation.
In order for us to do proper exegesis, we must strip down our presuppositions and allow the text to speak for itself. We must trust that if we simply refrain from putting our own meaning into the text, God’s Word will not contradict itself. The promise given that we are not destined for God’s wrath remains intact. But Rev. 4:1-2 is not the rapture. It comes later.
Interpreting this passage in this way creates problems for itself. The text itself does not allude to that being the rapture. First, we can’t get caught up on the word, “trumpet” (no pun intended) because that’s simply how the first mention of the voice was described. It was first mentioned in Revelation 1:10b-11, which says,
“Suddenly I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet blast. It said, write in a book everything you see, and send it to the seven churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.”
This is a description of a voice John has heard while receiving this revelation. This isn’t a trumpet sound. This is a voice that is loud and powerful like a trumpet. God’s voice is described all throughout scripture as being like thunder, many waters, rushing waves, and a trumpet. Rev. 4:1-2 is obviously not the first time we have heard the voice described like a trumpet. So why is it only the second time we hear about this “voice like a trumpet” (4:1-2) that it must mean the rapture? Why disregard the connection to the first? He wouldn’t make that connection if only this time he meant it to mean the rapture. Was the first mention also referencing a rapture? No. This is completely unrelated.
“But Brad, what about when it says, “and instantly I was in the spirit”? First, let me ask you this: are we told that the rapture is spiritual or physical? Physical. It’s a bodily resurrection. John’s actual body didn’t go into heaven and see these things. This was a spiritual experience. Secondly, being “taken in the spirit” is not unique to this passage. John uses this phrase all throughout his visions. If it was unique, then maybe, MAYBE there could be a very small case for why this could imply the rapture. But there is really no case at all because this is a phrase that is repeated throughout Revelation to signify that John is about to be shown something new. For example, Revelation 21:10 says,
“So he took me in the spirit to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.”
Revelation 17:3 also says,
“So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.”
Do these also signify raptures too? They both have the key phrase in them! It’s an inconsistent interpretation if you chose not to. But that’s what those pushing the pre-trib narrative do; they look for those keywords or phrases, “trumpet” and “taken in the spirit”, and enforce meaning behind them without looking at the context in which the passage uses them in. There is a descriptive purpose in the use of the word, “trumpet” in this passage. And there is a transitional purpose for the use of the phrase “taken…”, “carried away in the spirit”, or “immediately in the spirit”.
So, before we allow ourselves to get carried away by these trigger words, let’s keep the context of the passage intact. Also, let’s look at the context of the passage regarding the rapture in Thessalonians 4.
1 Thess. 4 is unarguably (amongst evangelical Christians) talking about the rapture in verses 13-17. In describing the characteristics of the rapture, it lays out a clear-cut image of what to expect.
- Lord will come down (Not touch down) John 14:1-3, 1 Thess. 4:13-18
- Trumpet sounds. 1 Thess. 4:16, 1 Cor. 15:52
- Elect are “caught up” in clouds (Bodily resurrection)
First, the Lord will come down. Looking at Revelation 4, we are missing that element completely. Second, a trumpet sounds. Nope. All we see in Rev 4 is a voice being described as a trumpet blast. And third, the elect are caught up in a bodily resurrection. Once again, we don’t see that. Read Revelation 4:1-2 again. No Lord coming down. No Trumpet sounding. No bodily “caught up”. This is John being brought into the spirit to be shown what is to come.
What’s to come is truly a beautiful picture, but when that which proceeds it is twisted to have an alternative meaning, we miss out on seeing it. God has brought John into the spirit to see something important, but we would rather shift our eyes and emphasize chapter 4:1-2, which is merely the transitional phrase leading up to the great revelation!
Unfortunately, we have to take a step back a little before we can jump forward into that. The reason for it is the main topic today: the 7 churches. Tim LaHaye added something in his comment regarding Revelation 4:1-2 that explains why he and others emphasize this passage. Once again, he says the 7 churches, “we have seen represent not only a message to each individual church but also to the seven periods of church history.” The over-emphasis on Revelation 4:1-2 comes hand in hand with the belief that these 7 churches in chapters 2-3 have generational application. In other words, though each letter was written to a specific historical church, the messages within them correspond to 7 church generations as well. LaHaye made it easy for us and laid them out for us to observe:
“Ephesus – Apostolic Church (A.D. 30 – 100)
Smyrna – persecuted church (A.D. 100 – 313)
Pergamos – state church (A.D. 313 – 590)
Thyatira – Papal church (A.D. 590 – 1517)
Sardis – Reformed Church (A.D. 1517 – 1790)
Philadelphia – missionary church (A.D. 1730 – 1900)
Laodicea – apostate church (A.D. 1900 – )”
I agree that the messages to each church have application outside of just the immediate historical church that received the letters. But I contend and say that it is quite a stretch to say that they are to be applied generationally. Rather, they serve as a blueprint to all the ways churches of all times may struggle. They represent all the contexts a church may find themselves in. They are commonly known as follows,
To Ephesus: The BACKSLIDDEN Church (vs.1-7)
Persistent in service, strong in discipline, but with love growing cold.
To Smyrna: The POOR BUT SPIRITUALLY RICH Church (vs. 8-11)
Facing a period of persecution.
To Pergamos: The Church SURROUNDED BY EVIL (vs. 12-17)
Steadfast but infected with heresy.
To Thyatira: The Church of GOOD WORKS (vs. 18-29)
But harboring a false Prophetess
To Sardis: The DYING CHURCH (vs. 1-6)
To Philadelphia: The WEAK BUT FAITHFUL Church (vs. 7-13)
To Laodicea: The LUKEWARM Church (vs. 14-22)
Self-satisfied church, boasting of her wealth while poor and miserable and blind.
The claim that these churches represent 7 church ages is an attempt to say that these letters written at the beginning of Revelation represent the “Church age”, followed immediately by chapter 4:1-2 which is butchered and titled to represent the rapture. That’s how they have indoctrinated people with the pre-trib rapture. Then they marketed it with the “Left Behind” movie and book series. This is yet another attempt to date to the book of Revelation. We hear often the most notable attempts to date events in revelation regarding when the rapture may take place. We are told not to do so all throughout the Bible. I won’t get into those passages here because they are unrefuted. Just note that they are often quoted to condemn those false prophets who try to do so. This is the same idea here. We can observe the order of events as presented in end times scripture but trying to mark it up with dates is a lofty approach to interpreting it.
Here are 4 main reasons why I believe the 7 churches (though applicable to us) are not applied in a generational church manner.
1. There’s no textual evidence to suggest that these letters represent generational churches. By now, we should all know the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Just as in the Epistles, we can understand that there is an immediate audience that was being addressed. But we can also see how those messages can be applied to us today. There are 21 epistles in the New Testament. I could do the same thing to the epistles that LaHaye and others do to the 7 letters in Revelation. I could say that the 21 epistles represent the 21 centuries of the church age and that each message can be applied by the century chronologically. But what scriptural basis is there for that? None. It’s stated because I already have a preconceived idea that the rapture will take place after 21 centuries. That puts meaning into the text that the text itself does not produce. Likewise, there is also no scriptural basis for the letters to the churches in Revelation to be applied generationally. It’s proposed because they already have a presupposed idea that the rapture is the next immediate event to come. 2 Thess. 2:3 directly refutes that, as well as countless other passages I have already gone over in past posts. This is an attempt to appeal to their rapture claim of Revelation 4:1-2.
2. Each generation of churches does not line up with these models. Churches today can line up almost exactly with many if not all the different types of churches here in chapter 2-3. There is no one model that anyone can say fits all churches today. All throughout history, all of these church types could be found somewhere. There was no consistent pattern of church struggle that lines up the way LaHaye and others try to suggest.
3. All of these literal churches that received the letters fall into the Apostolic Church age category. If the grand generational message of the Apostolic church age was that they were backslidden, then why are there alternative messages to all of these churches? Falling for this idea that these churches are generational eliminates the literal historical church application to each individual church. It makes the message entirely generational in application. No longer was the message to Laodicea about their lukewarmness because the generational church application for that time was that they were backslidden. No longer is the message to Philadelphia encouragement to remain faithful even though they are weak because the generational church application says they were actually backslidden. This is silly.
4. What was the theology on this before the 1900s? What was the theology on this before the Reformed church? What was the theology on this before we could see these 7 “so-called” church generations? Do you really think that the people in the early church sat down, read the 7 letters to the churches, and said, “Ya, I believe there are going to be 7 perfectly distinguishable church generations in the future that will represent each letter! That must be what this passage is trying to tell us!” Really?! Our theology changed because we wanted the text to say something it doesn’t say. It changed to make us feel like Revelation chapter 4 could mean the rapture. It changed to make us feel like tribulation is God’s wrath, and we must avoid it by rapturing out early. How will it change again when we enter into yet another church age – the 8th? (Arguably, we already have) Hopefully, it changes to the author’s intent. These are literal historical church applications that have contextual application to us as well, not generational application.
So what was the author’s intent?
The author’s intent was to share an amazing revelation! The revelation is that God has a will, and Jesus alone is worthy to open it!
Revelation chapter 4 introduces John to the heavenly scene. It serves as a tour guide showing us around and allows us to observe the environment. In chapter 5 we get down to business. Now that John is done sight-seeing the subject comes into view. Revelation 5:1-3 says,
“And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to lose its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it.”
When we look at the cultural significance of this scroll with seven seals, it becomes clear that this was meant to be understood as a will. We know this because of the presence of the 7 seals on the scroll. That number of seals will prove to be very important later on as we get into it.
A will contains a promise of inheritance or a list of desires that the one who died wishes to bestow upon someone. In Roman and Ancient Jewish cultures, (surrounding the time in which Revelation was written) a Will underwent a legal sealing process. It was only through this process that the possessions, land, wealth, honor, and every other possible item in the Will could verifiably be given over to someone else. That person was traditionally was the firstborn son. Who made sure this process wasn’t fraudulent or cheated? 7 witnesses. The Will was considered invalid unless sealed by seven witnesses. Legally, the Will was made void if seven witnesses could not testify to the will of the dead person. Already, the connection is obvious. But this narrative is carried all throughout the Bible as well; with God the Father being the one with a Will, and Jesus Christ as the firstborn son to receive the inheritance. Colossians 1:15-18 says,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
Another word for preeminent could be the word, ‘supremacy”. In all things, Christ is supreme because he is the firstborn from the dead. Deuteronomy 21:17 tells us,
“But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.”
The right of the firstborn is to receive a double inheritance from the father. But there is a problem. A will is pointless while the father remains living. Hebrews 9:16 says,
“For where there is a testament (a Will), there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives.”
In a will, the death of the one who gave the will is necessary to receive the promise of inheritance. Therefore, it was necessary for Christ to die, and rise as a new man, that he might receive the inheritance that is promised to the first-born sons in Israel. The deity of Christ is wrapped around the cultural significance of a Will/testament. How can the inheritance of God be given while he remains living? We see John crying in Revelation 5:4 because he knows this. No one is worthy of receiving the inheritance in God’s Will because we are all illegitimate children. We were all dead in sin, our father is Satan. BUT GOD sent down His son – a perfect representation of Himself – to live a perfect life, die willingly and undeservingly so that the Son, being born again can receive a double portion of God’s inheritance. Jesus alone worthy is worthy of opening the scroll, God’s Will.
“But one of the 24 elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals. Then I saw a lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the 24 elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which represent the sevenfold spirit of God that is sent out into every part of the earth. He stepped forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on the throne.” – Rev. 5:5-7
God, in the flesh, became subject unto death, so that his son could receive the double inheritance. So that Jesus, the worthy, unblemished lamb of God could open the will. And through his spiritual bloodline, we too, receive the promises of God by repenting of our sin and proclaiming Christ as Lord. Hebrews 9:15 says,
“And for this reason He is the mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the internal inheritance.”
There is still one element that we cannot overlook. The will was invalid unless sealed by seven witnesses. Looking back up to Rev. 5:5-7, we see that the lamb had “seven horns and seven eyes, which represent the sevenfold Spirit of God that is sent out into every part of the earth.” In the same vision, John sees a seven-branched candlestick burning at the throne, which the Bible tells us are “the seven churches.” (Rev. 1:20) The seven candlesticks relate to the seven eyes of the Lamb as well. Revelation 4:5 says,
“And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”
This leaves no mystery on the identity of the seven eyes. We are the observing eyes who witness all that Christ has done. The spirit of God speaks through us and testifies of Christ. The sevenfold spirit manifests itself through the seven church types in Rev. 2-3. That is why there are seven church types in Revelation. They represent the sevenfold Spirit of God that is spread to every corner of the earth. The reference to the seven eyes also points us back to a passage in Zechariah 3:9, which says,
“Behold, the stone (the cornerstone of the temple) that I have laid before Joshua: upon the stone are seven eyes.”
Christ laid down His life as a ransom. He became the cornerstone for the building up of God’s house. These seven eyes are the seven churches built upon Christ, proclaiming Christ, and witnessing Christ.
And finally, take note of this: According to Roman/Jewish law, each of the seven witnesses must be present, otherwise the Will is considered invalid. In other words, one witness can’t come one generation and place his seal, while another witness comes another generation to place his, and another later, and so on. They must all be present at once! The generational church age thing is ignorant to the cultural application of this symbolic vision in relation 5. It fails to account for the historical-cultural application.
“But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” – Acts 1:8
We become Christ’s witnesses once the Spirit of God comes upon us. The whole Gospel story is validated by the sevenfold spirit always being present throughout history, testifying of Christ being worthy to inherit the Father’s Will! At what point are we more concerned about upholding our dispensations than we are about truly understanding what the Word of God says? There is no indication of church generations here. There are literal churches and their corresponding “types” that can be seen all throughout church history. They need to be present, by default, at all times. All of them must be present at one time, and all of them WILL testify, because God’s reputation is on the line. He has never failed and never will. I’m willing to trust that he who began a good work in this world will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. I pray that this is your confidence as well.
LaHaye, Tim. Revelation Unveiled. Zondervan, 1999.