A Missing Piece
Few would disagree that the book of Revelation is one of the most puzzling and controversial books of the entire Bible. For nearly two millennia, legions of Bible scholars and teachers as well as ordinary believers have tried to sort out this dizzying pageant of symbols, characters, events, and cataclysmic waves of judgment that God pours out on a Christ-rejecting world.
As one might expect in the face of such a dizzying pageant of symbols, characters, events, and cataclysmic waves of judgment, there is an equally dizzying array of interpretive schemes that valiantly attempt to explain what it all means. These schemes evoke images of everything from literal asteroid strikes to allegorical fairy stories; from a horrifying future apocalypse to a historical fait accompli.
The problem, of course, is that God's Word doesn't afford us the luxury of accepting and entertaining myriads of interpretations. When people come along with unconventional theories and unorthodox scenarios, rather than just warmly embracing them in the name of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity, we have a biblical obligation to study them and do our utmost to rightly divide the Word and ultimately decide what's right and what's not in the light of what the Bible clearly teaches.
After all, this isn't a simulation game—it's not a classroom discussion in Comparative Literature. It's the inspired, inerrant Word of the living God, and the cold, naked, politically incorrect truth is that there is ultimately only one correct interpretation of anything in Scripture. As a result, while it is certainly true that godly men can and do passionately disagree in love and mutual respect, when we find an interpretation that contradicts other clear teaching in Scripture, we are compelled to call a spade a spade.
And the book of Revelation spawns more than its fair share of spades.
I said at the outset that the book of Revelation is a puzzling book, and that it is. In fact, you might say it's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. But rather than being content to fit the pieces of this book together in a logical, scripturally consistent manner, many people seem intent on taking the elements presented therein and shuffling them around like so many mahjong tiles as they concoct ever more imaginative and intriguing scenarios.
One section that seems to be a perennial favorite in this regard is chapters 4–7, which follows the Church Age of chapters 2–3 and includes the throne room scene, the opening of the seal judgments, the sealing of the 144,000, the Tribulation martyrs showing up in heaven, and it leads up to the trumpet judgments that begin in chapter 8. Images from this transitional segment of the book of Revelation have even found their way into popular culture, with references to such things as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (inspired by the first four seal judgments in chapter 6).
Here is a quick thumbnail sketch of the traditional dispensational view of this early section of the book of Revelation that was hammered out by some of the greatest Bible scholars of the nineteenth century:
After the entire Church Age is prophetically outlined in the seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2–3 ("the things which are"), the Rapture is depicted in 4:1 (kicking off "the things which shall be hereafter"). This is followed by the throne room scene of chapters 4–5, where the raptured Church is represented by the 24 elders who are sitting around the throne, and in chapter 5 Jesus is the Lamb who was slain and is the only one found worthy to open the seven seals on the scroll. In Revelation 6:1 Jesus opens the first seal (which launches the Antichrist's rise to world dominion), and this is seen as corresponding to the start of the seven-year Tribulation, or Daniel's 70th Week. Jesus opens the first six seals in chapter 6, after which there is an interlude for the sealing of the 144,000 Jewish evangelists. Multitudes of those saved as result of their ministry and who are martyred begin showing up in heaven in chapter 7, and then in Revelation 8:1 Jesus opens the seventh seal, which unleashes the trumpet judgments.
And hey, I'm not tossing out my own hare-brained theories here—this isn't something I scraped off the bottom of my shoe. This is how the founding fathers of dispensational theology saw it—men who were giants of Scripture. I've read some of the writings of these men, and trust me: I'm not qualified to polish the leather covers of their Bibles. If dispensational theology causes you any heartburn, take it up with them at the mixer following the Bema.
Several popular variations of this scenario have the Tribulation proper not beginning until much later, perhaps around the sixth seal—while according to some, it doesn't begin until the first trumpet judgment of Revelation 8:1. Some have Jesus starting to open the seals two thousand years ago, as soon as He ascended back to heaven. Many such people typically believe the first five seals have already been opened, and we await the great earthquake and cosmic disturbances associated with the sixth. Still others may see the seals as starting the Tribulation, but insist on placing the Rapture well into it at the fifth, sixth, or seventh seals, or beyond. Some even have the dead in Christ rising at the fifth seal, while "we which are alive and remain" are caught up at the sixth.
There is another "missing
piece" in this scenario that
is so routinely ignored that
it's almost as if it had been
erased from the collective
memory of the Church.
Or hey, maybe it was all fulfilled by AD 70, so relax. The possibilities are endless (shuffle shuffle shuffle).
In order to nurture and promote these scenarios, however, they have to find ways to dispense with a couple of aspects of the traditional dispensational view, and one of those was the topic of last month's article: the identification of the 24 elders as the raptured Church. They are forced to make the 24 elders someone or something else, or failing that (and forgive me if this sounds insufficiently gracious), throwing their hands in the air and insisting we cannot know who they are.
And the reason is simple: If the raptured Church is in heaven in chapter 4, that effectively shuts down all the trendy theories that have the Rapture happening during the seal judgments of chapter 6 (or later). Plus, since the Rapture hasn't happened yet, that means the opening of all the seals is yet future—certainly not something Jesus started doing two thousand years ago. The identification of the 24 elders as the raptured Church goes a long way toward helping us establish the proper sequence of events in this early section of the book.
Speaking of jigsaw puzzles... There is another "missing piece" in this scenario that is so routinely ignored that it's almost as if it had been erased from the collective memory of the Church. Like the identification of the 24 elders, this piece also has the potential to help us establish the proper sequence of events in this transitional period in the book of Revelation, and yet it seems to have been long forgotten by many otherwise scripturally competent believers:
The three distinct ministries of Christ.
It is important to understand that Christ's ministry is divided into three distinct phases: (a) Prophet, (b) Priest, and (c) King. Although He will exist for eternity as all three rolled into one and will never stop being any of these three, there are periods of time when one of these roles or administrations comes to the fore and temporarily overshadows the others.
In this article, I want to discuss why I believe that a proper understanding of Christ's three distinct ministries, besides giving us a greater appreciation of what Christ has done, continues to do, and will do for us in the future, is also a key that helps establish the proper sequence of events during this transitional period in the book of Revelation, and as such effectively refutes many of the less conventional theories being bandied about today.
I touched on this topic briefly in an article a couple of years ago, but since that time I have learned some things that made me realize it was worthy of a somewhat more in-depth treatment. Hence this article.
When Jesus came at the First Advent two thousand years ago, He came as the Prophet foretold in the Old Testament—He came to expressly fulfill that administration. In other words, He didn't come as a Priest, He didn't come as a King. He came as the Prophet Moses spoke of in the Torah—a Prophet that God would send them who would be like Moses, only greater:
15Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brothers, like me; to him you shall listen; 16according to all that you desired of Yahweh your God in Horeb [at the giving of the law] in the day of the assembly, saying, Let me not hear again the voice of Yahweh my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I not die.
(Deuteronomy 18:15–16 / emphasis & comments added)
As time went on, the Jews came to see this as a prophecy of the coming Messiah—a Prophet even greater than the one who had (a) spoken to God face to face, (b) delivered them from bondage in Egypt, (c) given them God's law, and (d) led them to the Promised Land. What Moses did, however, was merely a foreshadowing of what this coming Prophet would do: (a) be God in the flesh, (b) deliver them from the bondage of sin, (c) give them the Holy Spirit, and ultimately (d) lead them into the kingdom God had promised them.
Over the centuries, prophets came and went. Isaiah, Joel, and Micah. Jeremiah, Zephania, and Habakkuk. Ezekiel, Daniel, and Haggai. Finally, in the fifth century BC, the last prophet Israel would hear from for more than four hundred years: Malachi. Then...nothing.
Not one single prophet for over four centuries—only a few false ones.
The silent years—not a peep. They waited...and waited. God had stopped speaking to them because they had stopped listening, but their hunger to hear from Him again steadily grew. Finally, in the early first century AD, the last of the Old Testament prophets arose: John the Baptist.
Many in Israel recognized that they finally had another prophet in their midst, and inquiries were made to see if John was The One:
19This is John's testimony, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20He confessed, and didn't deny, but he confessed, "I am not the Christ." 21They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" [and notice this required no clarification: everyone knew who this referred to] He answered, "No." 22They said therefore to him, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" 23He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said."
(John 1:19–23 / emphasis & comments added)
Nope...I ain't The One. John's role was to prepare the way for The One, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit instead of muddy river water.
During Christ's earthly ministry, many Jews who knew the Torah, who witnessed Christ's miracles, and who listened to His profoundly authoritative teaching accurately pegged Jesus as the Prophet God had promised them:
40Many of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, said, "This is truly the prophet."
(John 7:40 / emphasis added)
Again, not a Prophet...the Prophet. In other words, they recognized Jesus as the Messiah that God had promised to send them. Peter reinforces this idea when he speaks of Christ to the crowd on the day of Pentecost:
19Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that so there may come times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, 20and that he may send Christ Jesus, who was ordained for you before, 21whom the heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets that have been from ancient times. 22For Moses indeed said to the fathers, "The Lord God will raise up a prophet to you from among your brothers, like me. You will listen to him in all things whatever he says to you."
(Acts 3:19–22 / emphasis added)
But at the end of His earthly ministry, He was taken into custody by the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane, subjected to a series of illegal trials, pronounced guilty of a capital offense, sentenced to death, beaten, whipped, taken out and nailed to a cross, resurrected from the grave on the third day, and 40 days later ascended to heaven. This represented a transition from one of Christ's roles or administrations to another:
He was transitioning from His role as Prophet to that of Priest.
Jewish temple service involved a good number of priests, and over all of them was the high priest, who played a unique and vital role. The ministry of the high priest began with Moses' older brother Aaron, with succeeding high priests being chosen from Aaron's lineage until around the second century BC. Note that there were times in Israel's history when multiple high priests existed at one time; however, the original pattern established by God called for one high priest at a time.
Exodus 28 and 39 describe in detail the priestly garments worn by both regular priests and the high priest, and it's interesting to note that the high priest wore a total of eight items—the number associated with Christ and of new beginnings. In Exodus 29 and 40, detailed procedures are given for the consecration of the priests, including the high priest.
The high priest carried out his most important duty on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Falling on the 10th day of the seventh month (Tishri), this is the one and only day of the year the high priest would enter the holy of holies and, after atoning for his own sins, would atone for the sins of the people for the past year in a ritual that typified and foreshadowed the atoning work of the future Messiah.
The detailed procedures carried out by the high priest on the Day of Atonement are complex and rich in symbolism, and certainly constitute a worthwhile study on their own. However, because of the limited focus of this article, I won't take you through them step by step. To make the point I wish to make, broad strokes will suffice.
As believers, we should understand that Jesus is our High Priest, who, by His death and resurrection, effected the atonement for sin that we become beneficiaries of when we believe the gospel in faith:
14Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession.
What the high priest did in the temple once a year on the Day of Atonement was a crude, earthly picture of what Christ accomplished for us at Calvary. Now, Bible scholars I respect argue over whether Christ entered the holy place in heaven and actually sprinkled His own literal blood on the mercy seat, or if it was all accomplished symbolically by His physical death and resurrection. I'm not going to be dogmatic about it either way, so I am not going to get into the physical, literal details of how this was accomplished.
But no matter how He did it, Paul spells out what He did for us in Hebrews:
11But Christ having come as a high priest of the coming good things, through the greater and more perfect tent, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation, 12nor yet through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, entered in once for all into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption.
24For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, similar in pattern to the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us.
(Hebrews 9:11–12, 24)
The point is that Christ is our High Priest, and by His perfect, one-time sacrifice, our sins are forgiven and we are eternally reconciled to the Father by grace through faith.
But there is a crucial aspect to Christ's priestly ministry that is overlooked by legions of believers today, and that is the following simple fact:
He is still carrying out His functions as our High Priest now.
Apparently, many believers assume that when Jesus arrived in heaven following His death and applied His blood to the mercy seat (however He did it), He was thinking something along the lines of the following:
"OK, that takes care of this High Priest business...now I can move on to other things."
But is that it? Is that the sum total of what Christ's role as our High Priest entails—the one-time sacrifice for the remission of our sin and we're good to go? After the Resurrection, had Jesus successfully discharged His priestly duties for us? Was He then free to begin transitioning to His role as King?
What say we pull up a chair at the Last Supper for some additional insight.
After the meal is finished, Jesus does something the true significance of which is often overlooked or perhaps not always fully understood: He begins to wash His disciples' feet:
6Then he came to Simon Peter. He said to him, "Lord, do you wash [a form of nipto (to wash a part of the body)] my feet?" 7Jesus answered him, "You don't know what I am doing now, but you will understand later." 8Peter said to him, "You will never wash [a form of nipto] my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I don't wash [a form of nipto] you, you have no part with me." [i.e., you have no fellowship with me] 9Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" 10Jesus said to him, "Someone who has bathed [a form of louo (to wash completely)] only needs to have their feet washed, [a form of nipto] but is completely clean. You are clean, but not all of you." [referring to Judas]
(John 13:6–10 / emphasis & comments added)
When He gets to Peter, however, His impetuous disciple fails to understand what the Lord is doing, and protests. But what is actually going on here?
Notice in the above passage there are two different Greek words translated "wash" or "bathe" (unfortunately, many translations use the single word "wash" for both) and the difference is extremely important. In verse 10, when Jesus says "Someone who has bathed only needs to have their feet washed, but is completely clean," the first word used is a form of louo (to wash completely), while the second word is a form of nipto (to wash one part of the body, typically the hands, feet, or face).
Many people assume that Jesus is merely giving His disciples (and us) a quaint object lesson on how we should humbly serve others, or something along that line—that and nothing more.
Yes, we are to serve others—but the implications of what Jesus did at the Last Supper go far beyond mere Christian service.
Jesus is explaining to Peter that he who is completely washed doesn't need to be washed in such a manner again—once is enough. However, that same individual needs to be partially washed on a regular basis in order to "have a part with" Him. Clearly, the complete washing is our salvation—when we believed the gospel in faith, were forgiven of sin, and were eternally reconciled to the Father. The eternal penalty for our sin was washed away forever. We are only saved once. It cannot be undone, and hence need not—indeed cannot—be done a second time.
But what's up with this partial washing Jesus is talking about?
This is connected to something significant about the priestly ministry that was established with Aaron and his sons. God told Moses that when Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests, they were to be given a complete washing. It was only done once—when they entered the priesthood. And notice that the Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew using a form of the exact same Greek word used in John 13:10 above:
1This is the thing that you shall do to them to make them holy, to minister to me in the priest's office: take one young bull and two rams without blemish, 2unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil: you shall make them of fine wheat flour. 3You shall put them into one basket, and bring them in the basket, with the bull and the two rams. 4You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and shall wash [LXX: a form of louo (to wash completely)] them with water.
(Exodus 29:1–4 / emphasis & comments added)
We see the exact same thing in Exodus 40:12–15 where this is repeated.
Fulfilling all righteousness: Notice that when Jesus came to His cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan River, He was in effect fulfilling this Old Testament ritual to become consecrated as a priest. The act of being baptized fulfilled the requirement for the complete washing that the priests were required to undergo upon entering the priesthood:
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14But John would have hindered him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?" 15But Jesus, answering, said to him, "Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed him.
(Matthew 3:13–15 / emphasis added)
That's at least part of what Jesus meant by "fulfilling all righteousness." In spite of being symbolically consecrated into the priesthood in Matthew 3:13–15, He doesn't fully enter into His role and function as our High Priest until after His death and resurrection.
In fact, the same principle applies to ordinary believers. When we are baptized as a public profession of our faith, we are symbolically being consecrated by this "complete washing" into the royal priesthood that we have become part of as members of the body of Christ. And I don't mean to sound all picky or legalistic or anything, but that's one reason why I personally favor the old-fashioned "total immersion" style of baptism that Scripture describes. Dunk 'em, dude...that's what I'm talkin' about.
After they were consecrated into the priesthood, however, Aaron and his sons were required to perform partial washings of their hands and/or feet at various times during the course of their priestly duties. Once again, the Septuagint uses a form of the exact same Greek word used four times in John 13:6–10 for the partial washing:
20When they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash [LXX: a form of nipto (to wash a part of the body)] with water, that they not die; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to Yahweh. 21So they shall wash [LXX: a form of nipto] their hands and their feet, that they not die: and it shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his descendants throughout their generations.
(Exodus 30:20–21 / emphasis & comments added)
And we see the same thing in Exodus 40:30–32 where this is reiterated.
Understand that the ministry of the Levitical priests in the Old Testament was for a people destined to be a kingdom of priests:
5"Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation." These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.
(Exodus 19:5–6 / emphasis added)
In some ways this typifies the priestly ministry that Christ carries out for the Church—a body of people destined to be a kingdom of priests:
6And he made us to be a kingdom, priests to his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
(Revelation 1:6 / emphasis added)
Revelation 5:10 says essentially the same thing, although there is some controversy over the pronouns used in many versions (see my last article).
Of course, we cannot simply equate the ministry of Levitical priests with the priestly ministry of Christ. Foreshadowing is just that—foreshadowing. The Levitical priesthood was merely a shadow of things to come:
"What was foreshadowed in the material building with its worldly sanctuary is now fulfilled in a spiritual system of worship connected with heaven.
"Although there were foreshadowings in the old system of the spiritual realities in Christianity, it is necessary to observe the marked contrasts between what was earthly and what is heavenly. Christ's priesthood is not of the Aaronic order, but 'After the order of Melchisedec': 'The law made nothing perfect,' but 'By one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.' In Christianity we have 'A more excellent ministry...a better covenant...better promises'; 'a better hope'; better sacrifices'; 'A greater and more perfect tabernacle'; 'An unchangeable priesthood.' with 'eternal redemption,' 'eternal salvation,' and 'eternal inheritance.' [...]
"Of old, the high priest bore the names of the children of Israel on his shoulders, and on his breastplate; Christ sustains His saints with a divine strength, and comforts them with a love beyond all telling. Our great high priest is on the throne of grace, and thither we can repair to 'obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.'"
John Nelson Darby
"The Present Ministry of Christ" [Source]
As Darby points out, Christ's priestly ministry is not of the order of Aaron, as established by God in the book of Exodus, but of the order of Melchisedec (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:11–21). It couldn't be of the order of Aaron: The position of high priest in the Aaronic order was to be passed down through to Aaron's lineage, but Jesus wasn't a descendant of Aaron.
So, just as priests were given one complete washing when they entered the priesthood and it never had to be repeated, our sin and its eternal penalty are washed away by the blood of Jesus the moment we trust in His one-time work of atonement, and that never has to be repeated.
The Levitical priests were completely cleansed when they became members of the priesthood—as are we when we become members of the kingdom of priests that is the body of Christ.
But just as the priests had to routinely undergo partial washings during the course of their priestly duties "that they die not," we too must undergo repeated partial washings during the course of our earthly lives so that our fellowship with God "die not."
We are still stuck with a sin nature during our earthly lives, and we still sin on a daily basis. That means our feet need to be washed regularly, even though, as Jesus Himself said, we are "completely clean." Otherwise, we lose out on the fellowship that God wants to have with us and that our inner "spiritual man" wants to have with God. When we fail to do so, we effectively limit what He can or will do in our lives, and we miss out on blessings we might have otherwise enjoyed. Worst of all, we rob ourselves of the sweet aroma of His presence in our lives, and we begin to smell like the worldly muck we are trudging through.
Just as Jesus personally washed the feet of His disciples, it is part of Jesus' current ministry as our High Priest to "wash our feet," so to speak, as we obey John's admonition:
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:9–10 / emphasis added)
This is a necessary part of Christ's present priestly ministry. After the Ascension, He sat down at the right hand of the Father to carry out His administration as our High Priest, and He serves in the sanctuary in the true temple in heaven:
1Now in the things which we are saying, the main point is this. We have such a high priest, who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, 2a servant of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.
And what is He doing?
25Therefore he is also able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, seeing he ever lives to make intercession for them.
(Hebrews 7:25 / emphasis added)
He has been ministering for His body in this manner for the last two thousand years, and will continue to do so as long as people are still getting saved and any part of His body is still on earth.
As long as there are members of the body of Christ still down here on earth (sinning), they need to have their feet washed—and it's a crucial part of Jesus' current priestly ministry to wash them, in a manner of speaking, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness as we confess our sins.
There is one other aspect of what Christ did at the Last Supper that is worthy of attention. Note with care what Christ said to Peter when he protested the washing of his feet:
8Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I don't wash you, you have no part with me."
(John 13:8 / emphasis added)
The phrase "to have no part with someone" is normally taken to mean to not have fellowship with that person, and that meaning certainly applies here. But let's take a closer look.
Although the absence of fellowship is indeed a legitimate and correct interpretation of this phrase in this verse, the single word translated "part" has another primary meaning. The Greek word for "part" in verse 8 is meros (which is related to the English word "merit"), and the primary meaning is "a part due or assigned to one; one's lot, division, or share." So besides just fellowship, could the Lord have been suggesting something a bit more?
Jesus said if we don't let Him cleanse us from the muck we accumulate in our walk through this fallen world, we would "have no part with Him." But in addition to fellowship, could it not be that He was telling us we might not "merit" a substantive role in the coming kingdom? Now, please understand—the following is pure speculation on my part, but it does seem to jive with other Scripture.
For example, Paul said:
24Don't you know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run like that, that you may win.
(1 Corinthians 9:24 / emphasis added)
Well, what kind of "prize" do you think he's talking about? And what's this business about "winning"? I can tell you one thing for certain: Paul can't be talking about salvation, inclusion in the Rapture, or eternity in heaven:
Salvation isn't a "prize"—it's a gift.
Inclusion in the Rapture and eternity in Heaven
aren't "prizes" either—they're promises.
Paul is talking about crowns...about rewards. But how should we regard this concept of "rewards," anyway? Does that mean someone will have a bigger mansion than I will, or maybe one with a heated swimming pool in the backyard surrounded by cherubs? Does that mean somebody will be cruising the streets of gold in a Porsche, while others may only rate a Pontiac?
Or a pogo stick?
Seriously. What kinds of rewards can we legitimately expect to receive, anyway? First of all, I think the emphasis here is on the kingdom, not necessarily heaven per se. After all, we're coming right back with Christ in a few years to rule and reign on earth in the Millennial Kingdom.
Beam me up, Scotty: Opinions of Bible scholars I respect vary, but I believe we will be living in the New Jerusalem during the Millennial Kingdom even as we rule and reign on earth. I believe after the 1,000-year kingdom is finished, the New Jerusalem will come down to earth and move into a geosynchronous orbit (Rev. 21:2). But wherever the New Jerusalem is located, it won't matter much to us because we will be transdimensional beings, just like Jesus was after the Resurrection. (A little too weird for your taste? Read John 20 sometime). In His post-Resurrection body, Jesus was able to move freely in and out of different dimensions, and we will be like Him (1 John 3:2). And I can't wait.
So, what kind of rewards could we be talking about? I think it makes perfect sense that our rewards and crowns will translate to more substantial roles in the kingdom—perhaps that's the "part due or assigned" to us, or our "lot," "division," or "share." Maybe that's something we can gain or lose.
Maybe a substantive role in the kingdom is something we can miss out on if we don't confess our sins, keep our feet clean, and maintain our fellowship with God.
Paul said in the same passage:
26I therefore run like that, as not uncertainly. I fight like that, as not beating the air, 27but I beat my body and bring it into submission, for fear that by any means, that after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.
(1 Corinthians 9:26–27 / emphasis added)
The Greek word translated "rejected" (sometimes rendered "castaway") is adokimos (not approved, unfit, worthless). Again, he's not talking about losing his salvation—that's impossible. And he's not talking about missing out on the Rapture or heaven itself—both are equally impossible. I think he could be talking about missing out on a worthy role in the kingdom.
In the rear with the gear: Call me crazy, but I'm getting more excited with each passing day thinking about what we will be doing in the kingdom—and I sure want to play whatever small part God has prepared for me when the time comes. I know it's silly, but I have this weird fantasy that I will be right back here in Taiwan teaching adult English—only in a glorified body. How cool is that?! But note that according to 1 Corinthians 3:15, there will be those who get no crowns...no rewards, and I believe they will have no substantive role to play in the kingdom. They'll be in the rear with the gear because they didn't avail themselves of Christ's priestly ministry.
Personally, I think this is one reason I've managed to avoid this obsession with pinning down the date of the Rapture so many are caught up in:
I'm obsessed with preparing for what comes after the Rapture.
The point is that striving to live a life characterized by holiness and confessing our sins every time we fail and as a result maintaining our fellowship with God translates to maintaining our status as being qualified for more substantive roles in the kingdom, and that entails regularly availing ourselves of Christ's current priestly ministry.
As far as our future roles in the kingdom are concerned, make no mistake: It's not about talent. It's not about intelligence. It's not about administrative savvy or managerial brillo—it's about obedience. Everything we get from God begins and ends with our obedience. Lacking that, although you may be "saved, but as through fire" (1 Cor. 3:15), you may find yourself in charge of a street-sweeping crew when it comes time for the kingdom to kick off...assuming you're not pushing a broom yourself.
So, since Christ is presently ministering in the sanctuary in the true temple in heaven as our High Priest and must continue to do so as long as the Church is on earth, that means He hasn't yet begun to transition to His duties as King.
So, when does that happen?
Christ will carry out His role as King in the Millennial Kingdom following the Second Coming. He will rule the world from Jerusalem, and I believe He will be assisted in ruling Israel by the 12 apostles (Matt. 19:28), while the Church will assist in ruling the Gentile nations (1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26; 3:21). But just as there was a period of transition between His role as Prophet and His role as Priest, I believe the period of time between when Jesus stands before the throne and takes the scroll from His Father in Revelation 5:7 and when He officially takes His place on the Throne of David in the Millennial Kingdom constitutes a transition from His role as Priest to His role as King.
In other words, when the throne room scene opens in Revelation 4 with the 24 elders sitting around the throne, Christ is ready to stand before the throne and take the scroll in chapter 5, and in chapter 6 He's opening the seal judgments and we're off to the races. Here's the point:
Everything Christ does from the throne room scene in Revelation 4–5 until He returns to earth to take the throne in the kingdom constitutes His transition from Priest to King.
Although He is said to officially begin to reign in Revelation 11:15–17 after the seventh trumpet is sounded and the final salvo of bowl judgments is released, I think one could still legitimately view this as being part of the overall transition to His kingly role (after all, Jesus was consecrated into the priesthood at the very beginning of His advent as "that Prophet," yet He didn't carry out His full-fledged function as our High Priest until after He was crucified). But when He finally returns to earth at the Second Coming, it won't be as a Prophet, and it won't be as a Priest—it will be as a King:
16He has on his garment and on his thigh a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
Check that—not a King: the King. The King of kings.
The point is that when Christ takes the scroll from the Father in Revelation 5:7, one thing is completely self-evident:
He has clearly left off with His current priestly duties, and is actively transitioning to His kingly duties.
When Christ takes the scroll, that transition is underway.
In my opinion, it's not hard to see that this transition from Priest to King likely begins as soon as John is called up to heaven in Revelation 4:1, after the end of the Church Age in chapters 2–3. The Church Age concludes at the end of chapter 3, in the next verse John is called up to heaven, and voilà. We're immediately introduced to the 24 elders, and bada bing, bada boom—the next thing you know, Jesus is busy opening seals and unleashing judgment on the earth (a full-bore kingly function). Color me surprised.
Since Christ must continue His priestly ministry as long as the Church is on earth and still sinning, and can only cease doing so when we are all perfected men in heaven, that can only mean one thing:
That means the Church can no longer be on earth when
Jesus takes the scroll from the Father in Revelation 5:7.
It makes no sense have the Church still on earth and still in need of Christ's priestly ministry when His priestly ministry has clearly come to an end when He stands before the throne to take the scroll in order to unleash judgment. And note that Jesus is standing in Revelation 5, not sitting, as He has been doing since the Ascension two thousand years ago* and as He is doing now:
11Every priest indeed stands day by day ministering and often offering the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, [this is one way Christ's priestly ministry is different from that of the Levitical priests] 12but he, when he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; 13henceforth expecting until his enemies to be made the footstool of his feet. [which is about judgment, which He unleashes starting in Rev. 6:1]
(Hebrews 10:11–13 / emphasis & comments added)
*Note: If you're curious how I think this jives with what Stephen saw while he was being stoned in Acts 7:55–56, read this (same link given earlier).
So Jesus is done ministering as our High Priest when He takes the scroll to release judgment—the text can scarcely be read any other way. And not to belabor the obvious, but all of this leads us to one inescapable conclusion:
The Rapture must occur prior to Revelation 5:7, and
most likely before the throne room scene of chapters 4–5.
On a side note, even if you don't see the 24 elders as the raptured Church when they are introduced in Revelation 4:4, the functions of Christ's priestly ministry (or the lack thereof, as the case may be) force us to conclude the Church cannot be on earth and thus the Rapture must have occurred before Jesus takes the scroll from His Father in Revelation 5:7. And since there's nothing indicative of the Rapture that occurs during the entire throne room scene in chapters 4–5 (except Rev. 4:1, that is), the Rapture apparently occurs before the throne room scene begins to unfold in Revelation 4:2.
Narrowing it down: If the Rapture does occur before the throne room scene begins in Revelation 4:2, and it must happen after the end of Revelation 3 (which is still the Church Age), that sorta narrows it down:
1After these things I looked and saw a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, was one saying, "Come up here, and I will show you the things which must happen after this."
(Revelation 4:1 / emphasis added)
I'll let you decide for yourself.
Cutting to the chase: The bottom line to all this is pretty straightforward. In my scriptural opinion, a proper understanding of the "missing piece" of Christ's three distinct ministries does the following for us:
• It renders completely null and void any theory concerning the timing of the Rapture except the pre-tribulation view, which it thunderingly validates.
• It renders completely null and void any teaching that has Jesus opening any of the seal judgments up till now, or prior to the Rapture.
Of course, many people claim that Christ's priestly ministry was finished after the Resurrection, which freed Him up to start transitioning to His role as King as soon as He ascended to heaven. Others claim He can carry out His priestly and kingly duties simultaneously just fine and dandy, thank you very much, because...well, because He's Jesus, that's why.
And for many believers, it's never even crossed their minds.
However, I see little if any clear scriptural support for these suppositions. I think Scripture clearly indicates a distinct transition between His ministries, and I sincerely don't want to be guilty of reading things into it that are not there. If you don't see it that way, that's fine...but that's how I see it.
The jigsaw puzzle
As I mentioned earlier, I often think of the end-time scenario, especially the book of Revelation, as a prophetic jigsaw puzzle, perhaps because they have two fundamental characteristics in common:
1. You've got to have all the pieces.
If even a single piece is missing, you will never get the whole picture. It will be flawed, and you may have to resort to imaginative ways of filling in the gaps.
In my experience, the distinction among the three ministries of Christ is one of those pieces that seems to have gone missing over the years—I've never heard anyone teach on it to any significant extent. Yet I am convinced that if we properly understand it, it serves as one of those "missing pieces" that helps us avoid misunderstanding or misinterpreting the sequence of events in the book of Revelation.
2. The pieces only fit together one way.
The pieces of any jigsaw puzzle are cut to fit together perfectly in precisely one and only one way, and if you start jamming pieces together that don't actually fit, it ruins and confuses the picture. In fact, if you jam and squeeze enough pieces together in this manner, you can create a completely different picture than the one the maker of the puzzle intended.
This is certainly true of God's Word. How many different ways do you think there are to correctly interpret what God says in His Word?
God gave us His Word to teach us, not tease us:
to communicate with us, not confuse us.
And He wants us to study and do our utmost to rightly divide His Word so we can grasp more of the whole picture and grasp it more clearly.
Naturally, none of us knows it all, and never will this side of heaven. But when people spin exotic, unconventional theories about what happens when in the book of Revelation, just remember:
There just might be a piece missing somewhere.
Greg Lauer / December 2017
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1. Deriv. of "Sunset Over Grass Field" © AOosthuizen at Can Stock Photo
2. "Missing Jigsaw Puzzle Piece" © vetre at Fotolia.com
3. Deriv. of "Circles Icon in Flat Style" © Oleg at Fotolia.com
4. Deriv. of "Circles Icon in Flat Style" © Oleg at Fotolia.com
5. Deriv. of "Circles Icon in Flat Style" © Oleg at Fotolia.com
6. "Jesus Washing Peter's Feet" by Ford Madox Brown [PD]
7. "Porsche 911" © Matti Blume [CC BY-SA]
8. Deriv. of "Circles Icon in Flat Style" © Oleg at Fotolia.com
9. "Closeup of Big Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces" © michaklootwijk at Fotolia.com
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All Scripture is taken from the World English Bible, unless annotated as KJV (King James Version) or AKJV (American King James Version).