Understanding Time in Revelation’s Seals and Trumpets

If we are going to properly interpret the book of Revelation, we need to have a discussion about time and then see how the text of Revelation seems to be portraying time.

When most of us  think about time, we picture a clock that is slowly turning.  One minute leads to another and is eternally lost once it has passed.  To most westerners, time is like a line that can never be retraced.  This is the way read stories, watch movies and recount the events of our lives, from the “start” to the “finish”.  And so little words like then or next or after this cause us to immediately assume that linear, progressive, chronological movement is occurring of the face of clock.

But there is another form of time that has only long existed in the eastern world, but has only recently been explored in the west, mostly in the movies or books.  Did anyone watch the any of these movies Groundhog Day, Babel, Looper or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?  Each of these movies does something interesting with time in its own way.  Groundhog Day1 jumps consistently backwards in time to  repeat February 2nd over and over.  The Story progresses in chronological fashion only to backup and start over with a new set of details.  All the events are true, all are contemporary, but they can only be told one at a time.  A similar thing happens in Babel as the lives of four people on four continents are traced  one after another, sometimes requiring the story to backup, in order to add pertinent details that will help one to understand “how we got to this point in another’s life.”  In the other two movies, time is jumped all over the place, only to present a coherent picture at the very end.

I say all this because the interpreter of Revelation is forced to deal with the question of time.  Either, we will fall into a sequential reading of time assuming that the way the text of John’s Apocalypse reads is a literal, chronological history or we can read it more like the movies I referred to earlier and recognize that Revelation uses its time markers  not to mark chronology as much as to allow us to jump throughout the story and see it in different ways.

If the telling of the story in Revelation is synonymous with the actual literal time when things occur, then here is how we would need to read the story between Revelation 1 and 12: Jesus appears to John, then John writes his letters, then Jesus is worshipped in heaven, then Jesus opens the scroll, then the judgments told in the seals occur, then some believers are set apart as sealed, then those set apart and who washed their robes in the blood of the lamb are in heaven, then the judgments told in the trumpets occur, and then if we read a little further we would find out that after all of this happens, then Jesus is incarnated into the world.

Do you see how this creates a problem for the one who reads the book this way?  Unfortunately this is the way most of us try to read the text.

If however we read the story as relating events that may be occurring at the same time, but are being told in new ways to give greater detail and clarity, then the seals and the trumpets can actually relate the same story of life for the church between the ascension and the final judgment and the birth narrative in chapter 12 goes back further and tells us why the church is being attacked.

If you are skeptical, then consider the description of the 6th seal and then 7th trumpet and ask yourself if these don’t sound like the same event in history:

  • I watched as he opened the sixth seal…the sky receded like a scroll rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.  Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come and who can stand (Rev 6:12, 14-16).
  • The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” And the twenty four elders…fell on their faces and worshipped God saying: “The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Rev 11:15-19).

This sounds like the same event to me.  The judgment of the world and the ungodly.  If both of these events readings of history, the seals and the trumpets are ending in the same place, then it seems plausible and likely that they are telling the same story of God’s judgment of humanity’s sinful rebellion and denial of Jesus as the Christ.  In the seals we see God’s judgment on the unbeliever from the perspective of the church and in the trumpets we see that judgment from the perspective of the ungodly.

Or consider the final wording of the 7th seal and the 7th trumpet:

  • Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8:5)
  • Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of the covenant.  And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. (Rev 11:19)

Did you notice how each of these are heavenly temple images affecting the earth in nearly identical ways?  Might God be telling the story twice?  I think so.

But why tell the same story twice.  Might it be a way of God declaring his firm resolve to judge all that is in opposition to him.  For those good with Bible history, you will recall the story of Joseph interpreting Pharoah’s dreams about the corn and the cows.  What did Joseph declare was God’s reason for giving the vision in two ways?  Genesis 41:32 declares, “The reason the dream was given to Pharoah in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.”

God is telling the story of the defeat of sin, rebellion, death and the devil in multiple ways in the book of Revelation because he wants his people to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that He is judging the world and will continue to judge the world until the day when Christ appears and the heavens make their home with the earth.

If we are to read the book of Revelation with these glasses, then all the questions of chronology and future prediction will mostly dissipate and we will gain new eyes to see how God is working in the world today and the promises he has made to preserve his church to the very end.

 

Notes

1 For an excellent plot description of Groundhog Day see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog_Day_(film)

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About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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