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The Day of the Lord

The Day of the Lord: An Introduction to the Book of Revelation

“Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night... But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.”

–  1 Thessalonians 5: 1, 4

Every book of the Bible points toward its final Revelation, the conclusion of humanity’s saga of creation and redemption, sin and salvation, judgment and reward. The book of Revelation depicts great and terrifying events in heaven and on earth, woven together to form a grand tapestry of the final days of the age. It also gives rise to numerous controversies: the identity of the antichrist, the duration of the tribulation, the timing of the resurrection and rapture of the saints. While there are many differing opinions as to how its judgments unfold, there is little disagreement that the book of Revelation portrays a joyful ending for believers with the return of Christ to institute a millennial reign of peace and righteousess.

In Search of a Framework

The book of Revelation’s grand sweep of earthly and heavenly events that lead up to the Day of the Lord is so complex that it is difficult to determine whether it is thematic or chronological, or which passages are literal and which might be symbolic. While many scenes clearly depict future events, others are contextual, symbolic, or historical. Some Bible expositors try to impose structure through an arrangement of a parallel series of seven judgments: seals, trumpets, and bowls, while others key on certain words as chronological indicators. However, none of these specific methods establishes more than a general framework. There is however a comprehensive framework that was grasped at least in part by the early church. It has lain dormant for the better part of two millennia largely because the book of Revelation has come to be viewed by the church as being exclusively a Christian book. Its Jewish roots and Greek influences are seen as making a few cultural contributions rather than structural ones.

The Ways of God

Although Revelation is the last book of the Christian New Testament, its scope exceeds the confines of the New Covenant instituted by Christ. It is the culmination of God’s long interaction with humanity through the many covenants he made throughout the ages. Revelation is not just the last book of the Christian New Testament; it is the last book of the Bible. The book of Revelation records the ultimate fulfillment of the redemption promise made in Genesis and prefigured in the covenants and the formal arrangement of Old Covenant worship. It is only within this broader theological, historical, and cultural context that we can begin to understand the structure and therefore the flow and content of the book of Revelation.

Although the person of Jesus Christ is the most intimate revelation of the nature and character of God given to mankind, the New Testament Gospels do not provide us with a systematic model by which we can examine God’s ways in a search for structure in the book of Revelation. Such a systematic paradigm can only be found in the model of Old Testament worship. The arrangement of Old Covenant worship into feasts, temple furnishings, and sacrifices contains a formalized pattern that reveals the ways of God in his dealings with mankind. As we begin to comprehend God’s ways, we start to understand the way he looks at things.

One of the more important aspects of God’s ways as they relate to the book of Revelation is the pattern by which he organizes time. This model is found in the annual cycle of the feasts of the Lord. Although this is not an exciting subject, in order to understand the book of Revelation, it is necessary to understand the themes of Israel’s feasts. The feasts are in fact the organizing structure of chapters 4 – 22 of Revelation. A brief sketch of Israel’s feasts helps us understand their themes.

The seven Old Covenant feasts of the Lord were harvest festivals, organized according to the spring, summer and fall crops. These three harvests were celebrated with festivals, requiring mandatory attendance. The spring harvest celebrated the festival of Unleavened Bread, which was also called Passover, because it contained three separate feasts: Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits. The summer harvest festival fell on the day of Pentecost. The final fall harvest of Ingathering consisted of the final three feasts of the Lord: Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. These seven feasts expressed seven different themes that imparted meaning to the annual cycle of worship. Because they prefigured Jesus’ work of salvation through time, the feasts also reveal God’s ways of thematically organizing time as it relates to his plan of redemption for mankind. They also complement God’s longer-term organization of time into ages or eras. According to the Talmud, mankind would be allotted six millennia, corresponding to the first six days of creation. The sixth millennium would be followed by a thousand-year age of peace, a seventh day of God’s rest and rejoicing for mankind when the Messiah establishes the Kingdom of God on earth.

Because the book of Revelation is an account of the final harvest of mankind and the culmination of God’s redemption plan of the ages, the seven harvest feasts of Israel’s Old Covenant worship define Revelation’s underlying thematic structure. The feasts of the Lord provide the key by which we can see the framework of the events portrayed in John’s apocalyptic vision. The application of the feasts to the book of Revelation can be compared to use of a scoring key superimposed on student answer sheets to show the correct answers; the template of Israel’s feasts reveals the pattern of the underlying thematic framework.

In order to understand how the themes of the feasts reveal the structure of the book of Revelation, it helps to grasp the difference between earthly and heavenly views of time. Man’s basic understanding of time is chronological: a succession of days that measures the span of a lifetime or forms a history. God, on the other hand, has a more purposeful view of time, since one day is the same as a thousand years to the One who is eternal. It is not the passage of days or even so much the span of ages that is significant to him. What is really important to God is his plan to redeem mankind. Heavenly time can thus best be described as a thematic unfolding of events that measures progress toward accomplishing God’s salvation plan. The book of Revelation is best understood when viewed from this perspective.

The Medium and the Message

When God reveals truth to mankind, he uses a medium that is understood by the society that receives it. At the time of John’s writing, Greek language and culture suffused the Roman Empire. The Romans had adopted the Greek gods as their own, and the majority of people throughout the empire spoke common Greek instead of Latin. Greek theaters had spread across the Hellenic world after Alexander’s conquests. Greek plays were well known throughout the first century Roman world, and were even performed at the local theater in Galilee. Most everyone was familiar with their format, which contained the common elements of plot, character, theme, diction, music, and spectacle. The same format has been passed down through the centuries and is still in use today as the basis of modern drama. Due to the pervasiveness of Greek culture throughout the first century Mediterranean world, it is no surprise to discover that John’s vision contains elements of a first century Greek play.

Being familiar with Greek and Hebrew culture, the early church would have understood the Greek composition of the book of Revelation as well as its Hebrew structure. Even though Revelation was read from a scroll rather than acted out in a theater, it used the familiar concepts and techniques of popular Greek drama that would have made it more easily understood by its hearers. With its strong reliance on theme and spectacle, its conflict and evolving plot, the format of John’s vision is best understood as a dramatic play. The book of Revelation starts with a prologue, an exposition contextualizing the vision that follows. The feasts of the Lord comprise seven ‘thematic acts’ that unfold in ever changing scenes. These acts are even punctuated by a working intermission. The book closes with an epilogue, a direct speech summarizing its reliability and direct application to its audience.

Like any good dramatic production, Revelation poses a dilemma early on that will be resolved through discovery and crisis by its central character and hero. The earth rightly belongs to the Lamb of God, but he must battle the Dragon and beasts who have seized it. Much like the consequences of the classical struggles between Greek deities, humanity suffers as a result of this conflict. Everyone must make a choice of whom to follow, just as in life. Dramatic literary devices are used to bring a sense of order and cohesion to events occurring in different times and locations, as well as to introduce background material and prophetic foreshadowing without unduly interrupting the flow of events. Finally, a chorus bears witness to the justice of significant events as they unfold and draws our attention to their importance.

Of much greater importance than understanding the Hebrew structure and Greek composition of the book of Revelation, however, is that we heed the call of Christ to walk in faithfulness and overcome. Our whole-hearted response to the message will bring us into maturity, growing in the character of Christ and doing the kingdom works to which we have been called. We are living in the generation that will witness the return of Christ. Let us be diligent to endure in our salvation.

“Therefore do not cast from you your confident hope, for it will receive a vast reward. For you stand in need of patient endurance, so that, as the result of having done the will of God, you may receive the promised blessing.” Heb. 10: 35-36

The prologue in chapters one through three of the book of Revelation contains a 2,000 year-long call to believers to prepare for the Day of the Lord. We are to turn from our own ways and follow Christ so we will be prepared for his return, regardless of the generation in which we live. We are urged to overcome the temptations of the world and the trials of this life to live for the Kingdom of God instead of for ourselves. Chapters four through twenty-one comprise the main body of Revelation, describing a time of tribulation and persecution, culminating with judgment on the wicked and reward for the faithful. The final chapter contains the epilogue, with its promise of eternal Life.

(Note: New Testament verses are from the New Testament in Modern Speech, a non-copyrighted early 20th Century update of the King James that retained the original meaning but mostly did away with the ‘shalts’ and ‘knoweths,’ while Old Testament verses are mostly from the King James. Other versions have been used occasionally for clarity.)

Copyright 2011