Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.i
There is no idea more central to the Christian faith than the resurrection of the dead. And yet, in these early days of Christianity, it had been called into question — in the church. It is in the great 15th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that Paul wrestles with a group that claimed there was no resurrection from the dead.ii I presume they still held a doctrine of the Kingdom of God, but for them, it was a physical kingdom — something a lot of Jews believed and expected. They thought the Messiah would come, conquer the Romans, and set up his kingdom right then on the earth — a physical kingdom. But Paul made it plain that they had it wrong.
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
For Paul, the whole discussion ends right there. He is not talking about a physical kingdom.
According to Paul, in the passage cited above, the resurrection and the change of living saints to spirit beings takes place at the same time, at an event he calls,
the last trumpet. Now in saying the last trumpet, he implies that there is more than one trumpet in a series. It is the last one that results in the resurrection from the dead.
There is only one place in the Bible where such a series of trumpets is described. It is in the Book of Revelation. Revelation is not an easy book to interpret, and in fact, I think most Bible teachers try to over-interpret the book. They explain far too much.
Revelation is a description of a vision seen by the Apostle John. John merely tells us what he saw and what he heard, and he makes no real effort at interpreting those things. The problem is that what he saw was not, in itself, real. It was all highly symbolic and it didn’t take place in real time anymore than your dreams do.
While Revelation is difficult, it does have something of an outline that helps us follow it. After some introductory letters, John comes to the core of the vision:
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying,Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
By this time, I expect John’s hair was standing on end. He had come into the very throne room of the universe. He was not in body, he was in spirit, which I take to mean that he was in vision. Something akin to this happened to Paul, and he couldn’t even tell if he was in or out of the body.iii John saw a throne with one sitting on it, and a green light like an iris surrounding the throne. There was enormous power in the place with lightning, crackling thunder and voices rumbling in the background. John had come to the place where God was. That one sitting on the throne was none other than God himself.
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 loose 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. So I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open and read the scroll, or to look at it.
This is so dream like. No time frame for the search is given, but John, like a lot of people in dreams, was just crying his heart out when he thinks they will be unable to open the scroll. This was not a book as we think of it, but a scroll. Scrolls were often written on only one side and then rolled up. This one was full, written on both sides, rolled up and sealed with seven seals. John could have merely said the scroll was sealed, but this one was sealed with the number of finality, of completion, seven.
But one of the elders said to me,Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
In Christian iconography, the Lamb is Christ. It is the Lamb slain and risen. There is something we should know about icons and iconography: A generation ago, icons meant little to us, but in the computer age, they are common. An icon is a little picture or image that stands for something. Instead of cluttering up the page with words and sentences telling us what this or that program will do, the designers use icons. On your computer screen, there may be a little image of a printer. Click on it and the print program is executed immediately. I counted on the screen of my computer this morning and saw some 65 separate icons. I was shocked that there were so many things I could do with one click of a mouse.
When you read the Bible, you find icons nearly everywhere. They are described by words in the Bible, but they are intended to evoke a mental image. A serious student of the Bible will have to do his own study of icons, his own iconography, so he can grasp what God, through the prophet is trying to say. I believe that, in some cases, we have lost the significance of the icon. We read the description, but don’t have a clue what it means. It is like an icon on your computer screen that you don’t recognize. You may say to yourself,
I wonder what that does, click on it and get a rude surprise. I think it is possible that the icon was meaningful to the first generation that read this, but is lost after so long a time. But the icon of the slain lamb is well understood across all of Christian study. The Lamb is Jesus Christ.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice:Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying:Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!Then the four living creatures said,Amen!And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.
There is no great difficulty in understanding what is happening here. The Father is there, the Son is there, and they are receiving the worship and adoration of, well, everybody and everything. Poor John must have been weak in the knees by this time. But there remains the question of why no one but the Lamb could open the seals. No one else was
worthy. How can that be? The answer will emerge: Jesus Christ, by his life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection, was the only one who had the experience to judge the earth. He had earned the right.
Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder,Come and see.And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.
At first blush, one might think this icon was also Christ, who will return on a white horse (see Revelation 19). But the returning Christ has a sword. The horse, the bow, and the sword are all icons for warfare.iv This horseman carries a bow, the icon represents the Antichrist.
When He opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying,Come and see.Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword.
The red horse is also an icon of war, which is borne out by the context. What is opening up here, seal by seal, is the judgment of the earth by the one to whom all judgment has been given (John 5:22).
When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say,Come and see.So I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying,A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine.
The icon of the black horse and the rider with the balances in his hand, is the icon for famine. Famine naturally follows on the heels of war. If this is a dream, it is a nightmare.
When He opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying,Come and see.So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.
The pale horse is the icon for pestilence, which follows war and famine like day follows night. It is our future that John is seeing here.
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying,How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
Still more persecution falls on the heads of the saints, following hard on the heels of what are commonly called,
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. At the time John saw this vision, the church had already endured much persecution and more was on the way. But this vision is for the very last days. It is hard to see a major persecution of Christians in the modern world from any other than an Islamo-Facist power. It is already underway in remote corners of the world, and it will reach a crescendo at the time of the end.
I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the
great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and 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 His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?.
What a description! It reminds me of what happens here in Texas when they decide to harvest pecans. They have a machine that grabs the tree high on its trunk and shakes the tree. All around them comes a
rainstorm, as it were, of pecans. John sees something like that, only global and with fire. It is something like a meteor shower of enormous proportions — an event that the earth has seen before, but long before there were any men to see it.
I don’t know what the ancients thought about this vision, but scientists now have no difficulty in accepting it because they have found the evidence that it has happened before. When one or more really big meteors strike the earth, they throw up a cloud of dust that can block out the sun and change the climate over the entire earth. So can the eruption of a volcano.
Someone recently theorized that Mars at one time had considerable water and an atmosphere not unlike ours. But an asteroid of considerable size had a close encounter with Mars and stripped away much of its atmosphere. I suppose if that happened here, a prophet might describe it as the heavens departing like a scroll.
One can almost imagine God saying at this moment,
All right, world . . . do I have your attention now?
When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.
After all that has happened up to this point, that silence would have been more than welcome, I should think. But now we come to the only meaningful series of trumpets in the Bible and along with it, an interesting view of the outline of the book of Revelation. The events of the last days are divided into sevens: Seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of God’s wrath. The seventh seal, as it is opened, is composed of seven trumpets. And the last trumpet includes the seven bowls of God’s wrath (Revelation 15:7 ff.). It is enough to make one shudder.
So the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. The first angel sounded: And hail and fire followed, mingled with blood, and they were thrown to the earth. And a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. Then the second angel sounded: And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood. And a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
It boggles the mind to even think about it. What could possibly account for this kind of event? In recent years, movie makers have found new ways to show us what lies in our future, things that lay well beyond the knowledge or the experience of a first century prophet. Over a period of a few years, there were no less than four major films dealing with encounters with meteors, comets or asteroids. One introduced us to the idea of an
extinction event. It is generally assumed now that we have had events like that in the history of the planet; one ended the age of the dinosaurs. As awful as the events of Revelation sound, they are far from impossible. They are indeed certain to come and now we don’t need a prophet to tell us they are in our future. We have science and Hollywood to tell us that. We need a prophet, though, to tell us why.
Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter.
It is only natural to wonder as you read through some of these disasters, are they all natural disasters, like passing through the tail of a comet? Or are some of them man-made? The earlier trumpets do sound like cosmic events, but this third trumpet is different. One can imagine this
great star falling as a missile coming in, carrying chemical or biological weapons — something well beyond John’s horizon, but it could happen tomorrow with weapons now available.
Then the fourth angel sounded: And a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them were darkened. A third of the day did not shine, and likewise the night. And I looked, and I heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice,Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!.
It is almost too much to think about. After all this, there are three more angels to sound their horns. The next chapter in Revelation includes the fifth and sixth angels and as you read them, the overwhelming impression is that these are not natural disasters. This is war. Human beings are engaged in the final acts of destruction from which, except for divine intervention, no flesh would be saved alive.v
You don’t have to go back many generations to a place where, had you spoken of something putting an end to all life on the planet, men would have scoffed. Then we went through a time when man could do it, but he would have to work at it. Now we have come to the place where we could put an end to life without even intending to.
So two more angels sound with terrible disasters following, but we have only found six of the seven last trumpets, and only two of the three final
woes. It is not until chapter 11 that the seventh and last angel blows his trumpet.
The second woe is past. Behold, the third woe is coming quickly. Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying,The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!And the twenty-four elders who sat before God on their thrones fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, The One who is and who was and who is to come, Because You have taken Your great power and reigned. The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, And the time of the dead, that they should be judged, And that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, And those who fear Your name, small and great, And should destroy those who destroy the earth.Then the temple of God was opened in heaven, and the ark of His covenant was seen in His temple. And there were lightnings, noises, thunderings, an earthquake, and great hail.
Right here, at the last trumpet is the moment of the resurrection of the dead and the rapture [catching away] of the saints. It takes place at the end of the period the Bible calls
the Great Tribulation and just before the period called
The Wrath of God. It is right here that we once again pick up the thread that has run from the beginning and through all the appointed times of God. It is Judgment Day.
I made the point previously that the early church had connected the Jewish New Year, or the Feast of Trumpets, to the resurrection. I also made the point that it is called in the Hebrew, a day of shouting, or cheering.
Someday you will gather up your feet into your bed, and you will die. It may be a heart attack that takes you. Or congestive heart failure. Or it may be the gradual shut down of your vital organs. And you will sleep. I doubt that you will be conscious of the passage of time at all.
Perhaps you will be
grinding at the mill. You may be working in your cubicle or cutting your grass. You may even be hiding out in a cave someplace. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, you will find yourself cut loose from the earth, rising upward, your body radically changed. And you will know. You will know that you are finished with the flesh and that you are about to meet the Glorified Christ. Do you think you will shout?
No pilot ever forgets his first solo flight. I recall one part of mine vividly to this day. After the take-off, the climb to pattern altitude, the setting up on the downwind leg, all of which required concentration, I turned around and looked at the empty seat behind me and shouted at the top of my voice. The part of that flight I remember most vividly is the moment of the shout.
Some of us have a saying when we land an airplane successfully. We grin and say,
Cheated death again. And I know that all that is nothing compared to the shout I will make when I know I have finally cheated death. It makes my hair stand on end to imagine the scene around Christ when we meet him in the air. I expect all of us, including Jesus himself, will be grinning from ear to ear and weeping at the same time. The cheer will be deafening. The celebration will be overwhelming.
I don’t have a certain knowledge of the timing of events after that. But I suspect it will take us all of the ten days between trumpets and the Day of Atonement to settle down and see what Yom Kippur is really about.
My favorite TV commercial is one about the brave new world coming our way through technology, the internet, communications. Voice after voice around the world asks,
Are you ready?
Are you ready?
Are you ready? And finally, a little girl comes on the screen, looks me right in the eye and asks,
You see, in the end, we will face death and we will win.
O Death, where is your sting? Paul asked.
O Grave, where is your victory now? Thanks be to God, who gives us the win through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(An excerpt from The Thread: God’s Appointments with History)
i. 1 Corinthians 15:51–52 ↩
ii. It is easy to forget that the very earliest Christians were Jewish and had been members of one or another of the Jewish sects of the day. The Pharisees and Sadducees are the two commonly encountered in the New Testament. One fundamental difference between these two sects was that the Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees did not. Apparently, the Sadducean error had crept into the church along with several other mistaken ideas. ↩
iii. See 2 Corinthians 12:1 ff. ↩
iv. In ancient times, horses were not used for agriculture, but for warfare, often pulling chariots, the
tanks of the armies of old. Consequently, when kings came in peace, they rode mules or donkeys — icons for humility. ↩
v. Matthew 24:21–22 NASB –
For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short.↩