Is Revelation warning Christians of trials they will experience prior to the return of Jesus?

Jesus’s Revelation to John may be warning Christians that they will go through the “Great Tribulation”

(Why it is so urgent that we read, hear, and take to heart what was written in this enigmatic book.)

By Dick Lentz

(All Scriptures cited come from the NIV2011 version of the Bible) 

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Revelation 1:3)

One of the more common interpretations of the book of Revelation is that it is primarily describing what will happen in the world following an event called the Rapture. Many Christians believe that the Rapture will result in the removal of all believers in Christ from the earth and that this will be followed by seven years of tribulation and judgment for those remaining – those “left behind”. It is my contention however that Revelation it is not providing a glimpse of what will happen to the world and those living it after Christians have been taken from it but that it is describing for the most part events Christians will witness or experience prior to the return of Jesus. Some of the events Revelation describes are problems everyone in the world will experience; some are ones only Christians will experience; some will happen only to those who are enemies of God. What this suggests is rather than being removed from this world prior to a period of great tribulation that Christians will experience or witness many of the events of those times.

In this post I will elaborate on this. As I do, I will divide Revelation into these sections and themes:

  1. Chapter 1: Whom John was writing to and why he was writing to them.
  2. Chapters 2-3: What was happening then: the good, bad, and ugly.
  3. Chapters 4-11: What Christians will experience prior to the return of Jesus.
  4. Chapters 12-14: What Satan will be trying to accomplish in the midst of this.
  5. Chapters 15-20: What will eventually happen to God’s enemies.
  6. Chapters 21-22: What will happen at the end of this.

Whom John was writing to and why he was writing to them (Revelation 1)

In order to understand what John was trying to convey through the prophecies found in the book of Revelation, we first need know whom John was writing to and why was he writing to them.

The answer to “whom” is clear. This letter was written:

4 To the seven churches in the Province of Asia (1:4).

John was writing to seven actual first century churches that were located in modern-day Turkey. But though his primary audience was Gentile believers associated with these churches, this doesn’t mean that what he revealed isn’t relevant for believers in other times or places. What it does mean is that Revelation is best understood in the context of the audience to which it was originally addressed.

Why these believers needed to know what Revelation revealed about their future can be determined by looking at a number of verses in the first chapter. They believed for example that Jesus was going to return some day:

7 “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen (1:7).

In the meantime, they were suffering:

9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus (1:9).

This is what was going to be revealed to them:

1 The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,2 who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (1:1-3).

19 Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later (1:19).

Many Christians in those days wanted to know what lay ahead of them. In that regards they were little different than Christians today who want to know the same thing. John wrote that he was revealing “what must soon take place” as well as “what is now and what will take place later.” When considering this, it seems apparent that some of the events John was writing about were occurring at that time. And though some of the events he described wouldn’t occur until much later, many were going to occur soon. By “soon,” I don’t think that John meant in thousands or even hundreds of years. I believe that many of the events John described were going to take place soon from the perspective of those he was originally writing to.

This conclusion about Revelation helps in appreciating the urgency in which John pleads for the those reading his letter to “take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (vs. 3). The gravity of His plea doesn’t make sense if these events weren’t going to occur until a far distant time. John wanted Christians in those days to read and heed what he was writing about and to understand its relevance for their time and circumstances.

What was happening then: the good, bad, and ugly (Revelation 2 – 3)

The next two chapters of Revelation describe some things that characterized the seven churches John was writing to and what could happen to them if this didn’t change. Five of these had some significant issues; two were doing fairly well.

Here was what Jesus had against the five:

  • The church in Ephesus had forsaken its first love (2:4).
  • Some at the church at Pergamum were embracing false teachings (2:14-15).
  • The church in Thyatira had allowed a false prophet to infiltrate their church (2:20).
  • The church in Sardis was dead (3:1).
  • The church in Laodicea was wretched, pitiful, naked, and blind (3:17).

Here is what would happen to each if they didn’t repent:

  • The church in Ephesus would lose its lampstand (its influence? – 2:5).
  • Some in the church in Pergamum would find Jesus fighting against them (2:16).
  • Some in the church in Thyatira would suffer; some would die (2:22-23).
  • Jesus would come like a thief to the church at Sardis (3:3).
  • The church in Laodicea would be spit out of God’s mouth (3:16).

Here is what Jesus told John about the other two:

  • The church in Smyrna was rich but was nevertheless going to suffer persecution (2:9-10).
  • The church in Philadelphia was weak but had kept God’s Word and not denied His name (3:8).

This is how these two would be rewarded if they remained this way:

  • The church in Smyrna would be given life as their victor’s crown (2:10).
  • The church in Philadelphia would be spared from the trials that were to come (3:10).

I believe that the original readers of these two chapters interpreted them as if John was writing to them personally and that he was telling them what would or could happen to them soon as a result of their good character or lack thereof. That doesn’t mean that what John wrote about these churches isn’t relevant for our times. The lessons are timeless. Churches today are called to be like the ones in these chapters that were doing well and to avoid being like the ones not doing so.

What Christians will experience prior to the return of Jesus (Revelation 4 – 11)

What is revealed in the next section of Revelation were events occurring at that time, ones that would occur soon from the perspective of the original readers, and some that would not happen until much later. From our perspective, some of these events are in our past, some may be occurring today, and some are in our future. The first six seals noted in chapter 6 for example seem to be describing past as well as ongoing events:

  • There have and continue to be those who wish to conquer others (6:1-2).
  • Peace continues to be elusive; men continue to slay each other (6:3-4).
  • The world continues to suffer from financial woes and inflationary stresses (6:5-6).
  • Many continue to die by sword, famine, plagues, and wild beasts (6:7-8).
  • Many have been slain as a result of being faithful to God (6:9-11).
  • The world continues to experience earthquakes and other significant natural disasters (6:12-14).

These are not dissimilar to what Jesus told His disciples they were going to experience prior to His return:

9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” 10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. 12. “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. (Luke 21:9-12)

It seems that the first six seals were describing some of the more common difficulties Christians would experience prior to the return of Jesus.

What is described when the first six seals are broken is not the end of the troubles for Christians or for others living in the world however. John continued by describing these catastrophic events:

  • Hail, fire, and blood come down from heaven; a third of the world is burned up (8:7).
  • A third of the seas turns to blood; a third of all life in them dies; a third of all ships are destroyed (8:8-9).
  • A third of all rivers and springs turn bitter; many die because of this (8:10-11).
  • A third of the night and day become dark (8:12).
  • Those not sealed by God are tortured by locusts from the Abyss (9:1-11).
  • A third of those unrepentant are killed by plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfer (9:12-21).

Other woes are described in chapter 10 and 11. What’s important to note is that the return of Jesus, as noted in the passage below, along with the judging of the dead and the beginning His reign, do not happen until after all the terrible events above have occurred:

15 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 Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

16 And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.

18 The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small— and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:15-18).

As I noted in a prior post titled, “The three accounts of the return of Jesus in Revelation,” I believe there are three accounts of the return of Jesus in Revelation, each with a different purpose. I believe that the purpose of this first account, the one found in Revelation 4 — 11, is to warn Christians that they will experience difficult times prior to Jesus’ return so that they are prepared for them and are not be surprised when they take place.

What Satan will be trying to accomplish to in the midst of this (Revelation 12 – 14)

Things will be difficult for Christians as the events in chapters 4 — 11 unfold. What will make these times even more challenging is what Satan will be attempting to do in the midst of them. Here is what the apostle Paul had to say about the spiritual forces aligned against us:

 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).

The battle between us and these spiritual forces of evil is first alluded to in the account in Genesis 3 of what was going to happen following Satan’s success in convincing Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that it was okay to disobey God:

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:14-15).

This passage in Genesis seems to be prophesying about the ongoing conflict that was going to take place between God and Satan as a result of what happened in the Garden of Eden. Although Satan would win some battles, in the end, God triumphs. I believe that Revelation 12 – 14 is elaborating on some aspects of this conflict and what Satan will be attempting to accomplish as he trys to thwart God’s plans.

Here are some things that chapter 12 describes:

  • A woman with a crown of twelve stars, who I believe represents Israel, is pregnant with a child, who I believe represents Jesus (vss. 1-2).
  • A dragon with seven heads, who represents Satan, tries to devour the child soon after it is born but is unsuccessful in its attempts to do so (vss. 3-5).
  • The dragon tries to destroy the woman but is unsuccessful in doing this as well (vss. 13-16).
  • The dragon then wages “war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (vs. 17).

Chapter 12 seems to capture in a nutshell Satan’s ongoing attempts to destroy Israel so that Jesus would not be born and to find and kill Jesus after He was born. When all these failed, Satan began venting his rage on Christians.

Chapter 13 provides more details about the ongoing battle being waged by Satan against those who are followers of Jesus. It describes the power Satan gives to a beast to blaspheme God, to wage war against God’s people, to force people to worship him, and to take God’s people captive or slay them. I believe that this beast is not one individual or nation but instead represents all who have blasphemed God and made war against the followers of Jesus over the centuries. Revelation includes this warning as it describes this:

9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

10 “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.”

This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people (13:9-10)

What follows is a description of a time when another beast forces people to bow down to its image and to be marked to indicate their willingness to worship him (13:11-18). As I noted in a previous post titled, “The Mark of the Beast May be a Concern Only for Christians,” this mark is probably not a physical mark but is rather a demarcation or separation that takes place when one denies Jesus in order to protect their financial wherewithal or to preserve their lives.

This section of Revelation ends with a description of a harvest that takes place (14:14-20). As I noted in a previous post titled, “Warning to Christians: You may be here for the duration,” I believe that this is the same harvest Jesus was referring to when He told His disciples that the wheat and tares (believers and unbelievers) will be living together in the same field together until the final harvest (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).

It seems to me that Revelation 13 is describing some things Satan will be trying to accomplish before this final harvest takes place. What he wants to do is to undermine the ability of Christians to share their faith or to diminish their effectiveness by holding them captive, by killing them, or by getting them to deny Jesus.

Revelation 14 includes this dire warning regarding those who are marked:

9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, 10 they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus (14:9-12).

This may have been on John’s mind when he wrote this earlier in the book:

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Revelation 1:3).

What was near to those John was writing to was perhaps some of the difficulties described in chapters 4—11 as well as the challenges described in chapters 12 — 14. What John was encouraging his readers to do was to take his warnings seriously and to respond to their times and circumstances with patient endurance. They were to continue to keep God’s commands and to remain faithful to Jesus no matter what difficulties or threats they faced.

What will eventually happen to God’s enemies (Revelation 15 – 20)

Many Christians want to know what is going to happen to God’s enemies. That was just as true in the first century as it is today. The next five chapters of Revelation describe the time when God finally exercises His wrath against His enemies. It includes the following events:

  • Seven angels appear with seven plagues. These complete God’s wrath (15:1-8).
  • These seven bowls of wrath are poured out upon the earth (16:1-21).
  • Babylon, who I believe represents all who have opposed God, rises and falls (17:1 – 18:24).
  • A heavenly warrior (Jesus) defeats the beast and those who supported it (19:1-21).
  • Satan is judged and thrown into an abyss; the dead are judged as well (20:1-15).

Note the warning that comes in the midst of these events:

15 Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed” (Revelation 16:15).

It seems when reading the above verse that believers in Christ – those who have not already physically died – will be here on earth when these final battles take place. What was revealed to John about this could be an elaboration of what Paul said would precede the return of Jesus:

1 Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).

Note Paul’s emphasis that the coming of our Lord (vs. 1) will not come until the rebellion occurs (vs. 3). I believe that the rebellion Paul was referring in this passage is the same rebellion John was writing about in Revelation 15 — 20, a rebellion that culminates in a final battle between Jesus and the forces aligned with Satan and that results in the final judgment of all those who have opposed God.

John was confirming that God’s enemies will in the end be dealt with justice. In the meantime, those who are followers in Christ need to endure. For though those in Christ are not destined to experience God’s wrath during this time, it seems that they will be around when His wrath is unleashed.

What will happen at the end of this (Revelation 21-22).

Eventually all the terrible events described in the book Revelation and will come to end. What results will be a world that is new and perfect. In this new world:

  • There will be no death, no mourning, no crying, and no pain (21:4).
  • A new Jerusalem will appear that Revelation says is the Bride of  Christ (21:9-14).
  • Jesus will reign, and His servants will worship and serve Him (22:1-5).

There seems to be some conditions however if one is to enjoy the benefits of the above:

7 “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll” (22:7).

11 “Let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy” (22:11b).

12 “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (22:12).

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city” (22:14).

I believe that one must be in a saving relationship with Jesus and have stayed in that relationship in order to enjoy the benefits of the new world He is going to create. This conclusion is consistent with the instructions found in these verses in Revelation:

  • Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (1:3).
  • Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).
  • Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer … Be faithful, even to the point of death (2:10).
  • Repent (2:16; 3:19).
  • Wake up (Rev. 3:2)!
  • Hold onto what you have (3:11).
  • This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people (13:10c).
  • This calls for wisdom (13:18).
  • This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus (14:12).
  • Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed (16:15).

It is also consistent with what Jesus told His disciples they were to do in response to what lay ahead for them:

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:9-13).

So what’s the point?

I believe that the purpose of the book Revelation is to warn Christians that the world is going to be a tough place to live in and that they need to remain faithful to Jesus no matter what circumstances they face. Some of the difficulties Christians face will be common to everyone, believers and unbelievers alike; some will be challenges only for those who are followers of Christ; some will be reserved for those who are enemies of God. But all alive when these terrible events occur will be affected by them in one way or another. It is imperative that believers understand this so they aren’t surprised when these terrible events take place or forget how important it is to remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of them.

That is how I see it today.

For further reading on this topic, check out these posts:

Warning to Christians: You may be here for the duration

Three things that must happen before Jesus returns

The Mark of the Beast may be a concern only for Christians

Jesus’ return will be visible to everyone

The three accounts of the return of Jesus in Revelation

Why the parable of the thief coming in the night may be a warning to Christians

Why the Church may not be the Bride of Christ

When Jesus returns, it won’t be Christians who are “taken away”

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