When prophecies don’t happen

For various reasons, prophecies sometimes don’t happen. Sometimes (perhaps often, especially from untested prophets) they’re false; sometimes (perhaps usually, at least in the Bible) they’re conditional; sometimes (also perhaps usually, and often in the Bible) we misunderstood them because they’re almost always partial; and sometimes (probably often in the Bible) their time remains partly or fully future.

Now, the above paragraph addresses readers who, like me, believe that God continues to provide prophetic direction to his people today (for our lives as individuals or communities, not for new doctrine). But the rest of this post addresses instead why some biblical prophecies haven’t happened. After all, these prophecies were given a long time ago! All the same reasons can be given for biblical prophecy anomalies as for the contemporary ones addressed above (the Bible even records false prophecies, albeit without endorsing them; e.g., Jer 28:11).

The Nature of Prophecy

Most fundamental to the question is the nature of prophecy as it’s presented in the Bible. Prophecies are usually linked by kind of event, not arranged by a chronological timeline. Thus in Joel 1—2 a locust invasion is depicted with the imagery of an invading army, foreshadowing the ultimate day of the Lord (Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 11, 31). The next chapter, however, goes on to depict a real invasion in an ultimate day of God’s judgment (3:9-17, esp. v. 14).

Likewise, on Mount Horeb the LORD instructs Elijah to carry out three special missions: anoint Hazael as Aram’s king; anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as Israel’s king; and anoint Elisha as Elijah’s prophetic successor (1 Kgs 19:15-16). Elijah does in fact call his successor Elisha (19:19-21), but Elisha appoints Hazael (2 Kgs 8:12-15) and delegates another prophet to anoint Jehu (2 Kgs 9:1-10). The missions were carried out, but Elijah’s role in two of the three cases was indirect.

It’s not that these sorts of anomalies escaped ancient Israelites’ notice; they simply were accustomed to the ambiguous and unusual nature of prophecy. Ancient Israelites knew that prophets tended to be strange (see e.g., 2 Kgs 9:11; Jer 29:26; Hos 9:7; cf. Acts 2:13; 1 Cor 14:23), and everyone knew that inspiration or even divine command could lead to unusual behavior (1 Sam 10:5-6, 10; 1 Kgs 20:35-27; Isa 20:3; Jer 13:4, 7; Ezek 36:1; Hos 1:2). Sometimes a prophet would be confronted and have to wait until God gave yhe answer to speak it (Jer 28:11-12).

Sometimes God could even command someone to do something and expect them rightly to resist (Jer 35:5-8, 14). Sometimes God could raise someone up yet know in advance how the person would fail and plan for a successor once that successor was mature (1 Sam 8:7-18; 10:24; 15:28-29; 16:13-14).

Inexact and conditional prophecies

Prophecies didn’t have to be exact. Agabus’s prophecy in Acts 21:11 is not precisely how things played out, but it communicated the basic expectation. Contrary to what some people say, prophecies had that flexibility in the OT, too (e.g., Isa 37:29, 36). In fact, before the exile, most books of prophecies were in poetry; Hebrew poetry reveled in metaphor and symbolic imagery. Sometimes prophets used diverse images for judgment when the basic thrust was simply that judgment is coming. Sometimes they used poetic imagery to prophesy glory when ultimately God planned even greater glory than the original imagery could contain (compare Ezek 40—48 with Rev 21:1—22:5, esp. 21:22). At other times, of course, prophecies could prove very precise in matters of detail (e.g., 1 Sam 10:2-5). (I could give examples of this happening today, including in my own and my wife’s lives.)

As prophets sometimes pointed out, prophecies themselves are normally conditional, whether or not this is stated; sometimes, then, they will not come to pass if people turn from their current ways (Jer 18:7-11; cf. also Ezek 18:21-32). That’s why Jonah was so upset when God relented of his warning to judge Nineveh (Jon 3:9—4:2). Nations could escape promised judgments, or could lose promised blessings, by turning from their behavior. In the same way, individuals’ repentance could cause promises of judgment to be deferred (1 Kgs 21:29; 2 Kgs 22:19-20).

Some of the ambiguity has to do with the unusual ways that God, though foreknowing the future, intersected with the free choices of time-bound mortals on their level. Some today argue that the future is “open” and thus God foreknows only what he specifically ordains; others, that God knows the infinite number of possible futures and charts out the most important outcomes accordingly; others, including (I think) myself, that God foreknows the future, but works with humans on their level (divine “accommodation,” some church fathers called it; cf. e.g., 1 Sam 8:7). Theologians also debate the degree to which God directly causes things—from activating creation and then “intervening” only occasionally to micromanaging subatomic particles. (Most stop short of deism, on the one hand, with no intervention, and God directly causing evil actions, on the other. Some would affirm that God knows every sparrow that falls yet protest that he is not shooting them down with a BB gun.) This is not the place to try resolve these questions, but simply to note that there are a variety of options to consider when addressing what we tend to envision as unfulfilled prophecy.

Limited insights, misinterpretations

The gift of prophecy itself was also fallible in its execution, not because God errs in speaking but because prophets may err in hearing. Happily the Bible is time-tested; of the prophets of Jeremiah’s generation, for example, only Jeremiah’s prophecies proved true and made it into the Bible.

That God would guard his Word for subsequent generations, however, didn’t prevent the actual experience of distinguishing true from false prophets from sometimes being messy on the ground. Jeremiah appealed to the succession of prophetic voices and warned that the burden of proof is on the prophet of peace (Jer 28:8-9). But Jeremiah stood virtually alone against a majority of supposed prophets (e.g., Jer 5:13, 31; 6:14; 8:11; 14:13-15; 23:9, 15-16, 21, 26, 30-31; 27:9, 14-18; 29:8), who affirmed the people’s theologically-grounded conviction that, since they were God’s people and godlier than their enemies, God would surely protect them (e.g., Jer 7:4). Prophesying against God’s temple or people sounded to them like blasphemy (e.g., 20:2; 26:8-9)! In some parts of the world, many erroneous prophets today likewise promise God’s people blessings and a blissful future in this world instead of warning of the corruption and folly among God’s people that itself merits divine discipline.

Moreover, even genuine prophets could make wrong assumptions or misinterpret what the Lord was saying; Nathan had to backtrack on an assurance once the word of the Lord actually came to him (2 Sam 7:3-5). This was true because prophets “prophesy in part,” just as teachers “know in part” (1 Cor 13:9); our knowledge in this age is limited (13:9-12). That’s why John the Baptist heard of Jesus’s works and then questioned who Jesus was (Matt 11:2-3//Luke 7:18-20); John had rightly heard from God that the coming one would baptize in the Spirit and in fire (Matt 3:11//Luke 3:16), but he had not heard from God about there being two comings. What John heard from God was right, but John’s inference was wrong because he, like all prophets, had only a piece of the larger picture.

In a similar way, prophets revealed to Elisha, “Do you know that your master is going to be taken from you today?” “I know,” he replied, “be quiet.” This happened in a couple different towns, but Elisha, more mature as a prophet, held his peace until Elijah broached the subject with him. After a chariot of fire swept Elijah to heaven, the prophets thought that God’s Spirit had deposited Elijah’s body somewhere and wanted to go looking for him. They had some revelation but were much less mature and complete in their knowledge (2 Kgs 2:3-6, 16-18).

Likewise, people prophesied to Paul in every city what awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23), but he knew (also by the Spirit) that his mission was clear (20:22). Some said to him “through the Spirit,” i.e., prophetically, that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem (21:4). After another prophecy of what awaited him (21:11), all his friends present—probably including Agabus the prophet and Philip’s four prophetic daughters—urged Paul not to continue on this road. Paul maintained his mission, however, until his friends desisted and conceded, “Let God’s will be done” (21:12-14).

How could the detractors warn Paul not to go “through the Spirit,” yet it was God’s will for Paul to go? Surely God the Father and the Spirit are better coordinated than that (Rom 8:27)? But prophetic knowledge is partial; the believers’ partial knowledge through the Spirit of what Paul would face (cf. Acts 20:23) and their love, also from the Spirit, motivated them to urge Paul not to go (21:4). Given their limited knowledge, it was even right for them to urge Paul not to go. But Paul had a higher level of prophetic knowledge concerning his own mission and nothing would stop him from fulfilling it. We know from his letters that Paul sometimes had to correct prophets, reminding them not to abuse their inspiration, to control it in the right way, and to recognize a higher level of order (1 Cor 14:30-33, 37-38). Paul worked on a higher level of inspiration and from a more mature perspective than typical local prophets (1 Cor 14:37-38).

The Lord’s return

I won’t survey here the history of failed predictions by prophecy teachers who use what I call “newspaper hermeneutics” to interpret biblical prophecies. Their approach to the text is almost completely wrong-headed, so we should not be surprised by their high proportion of failed guesses (for details, see my Revelation commentary [Zondervan, 2000], pages 23-26, 61-65; such debacles are also chronicled in, e.g., Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now! [Baker, 1977] and Richard G. Kyle, The Last Days are Here Again [Baker, 1998]). In these cases, it’s not biblical prophecies that have failed, but modern interpreters working in almost complete isolation from ancient context.

But, in Scripture itself, what about Jesus’s apparent promise to return within a generation? Or, to use common scholarly language, the “delay of the parousia”? I cannot address this at length here, and address it in my commentaries on Matthew (Eerdmans, 2009) and Revelation (already noted). Particularly helpful here is Ben Witherington’s book Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World (InterVarsity, 1992).

Scholars approach this question from a variety of angles. N. T. Wright, for example, construes all of Mark 13 with reference to the temple’s destruction in A.D. 70; Jesus comes figuratively in judgment on the temple. My understanding is different, related to what I have already noted about prophecy usually viewing events according to their kind rather than their chronology (remember Joel’s day-of-the-Lord-portending locust plague). I believe that the temple’s destruction provided a foreshadowing of greater judgment to come, but did not complete it.

Again, prophetic blending of events by kind is not unusual in the Bible. For example, the geographically diverse origins of Jewish believers on Pentecost, the conversion of an African official from the southern ends of the earth, and the gospel reaching Rome all foreshadow in Acts the greater fulfillment of the gospel reaching the ends of the earth, announced in Acts 1:8. Likewise, Matthew incorporates end-time material from Mark 13 to turn the mission instructions for the Twelve (Matt 10) into a model for mission relevant until the end of the age (cf. 10:23), albeit with a few subsequent adjustments (28:19). One of the proposed theological solutions to the final sequence of events in Dan 11—12, which seems to leap from a very exact depiction of the Maccabean era to the resurrection of the dead, is to think in terms of deferred eschatology, possibly by coalescing the image of different abominations.

Unlike N. T. Wright, whom I do greatly esteem, I do see Jesus’s future return addressed in Jesus’s eschatological discourse, especially clearly in Matthew’s Gospel. In the context of Matthew 25 (and also the reuse of the same imagery in 1 Thess 4:13—5:9), Matthew apparently does envision Jesus’s still-future coming in Matt 24:27-31, 36-51 (a section largely parallel to Mark 13). But Matthew, who may be writing after the temple’s destruction in 70, offers clearer guidance than Mark for distinguishing between the devastation of 70 and the ultimate day of judgment that it portends. In Matt 24:3, the disciples ask two distinct questions: “When will these things be?” (i.e., the temple’s destruction, 24:1-2), and, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the age’s end?”

In light of this introduction, Jesus’s discourse addresses both topics, while moving back and forth between them. Clearly the sacrilege in the holy place that will produce desolation involves the events leading up to 70 (24:15-20). As for signs of the end, Jesus specifically disavows as signs of the end the sorts of regular historical events that his contemporaries often cited as signs of the end (24:6-8), while including as a prerequisite for the end proclaiming the good news of God’s reign among all peoples (24:14). For anyone waiting to repent until a “sign” comes, however, they will wait too late: when the Son of Man’s sign appears in heaven, Jesus is returning (24:30).

The temple’s destruction was part of “these things” to be fulfilled within a generation (24:34); Jesus’s return would happen at an hour known to no one but the Father—not even the Son (24:36). Jesus explicitly reveals that he himself does not know (at least at the time he was speaking) the schedule of his return. Yet the fulfilled destruction of the temple within a generation (found not only in Mark but implied in probably even earlier “Q” material in Matt 23:38//Luke 13:35) assures us that the promise of Jesus’s coming, also, will ultimately be fulfilled.

This depiction, then, comports well with the larger New Testament tension of the already/not yet, which is the ultimate example of having to distinguish blended prophetic events. Jesus fulfilled more prophecies than his contemporaries expected for a Messiah—God’s own coming, David’s Lord, the ultimate suffering servant, and the like. Yet he did not liberate Israel from the nations, as they expected, because they read a wrong chronology into biblical promises.

He would begin the restoration with a foretaste, such as healing and deliverance from demons, and establish his cosmic rule spiritually, but then he would remain at the Father’s right hand until the Father subordinated his enemies under his feet (Ps 110:1). There would thus be two comings. Likewise, the time of the witness to the nations predicted in Isaiah would happen between the comings, not as a result of the Messiah’s coming, which would judge the nations. Prior prophecy did not provide all the details, and especially a timeline; some features would be understood fully only once the prophecies came to pass and filled in the lacunae in our knowledge (especially, again, of timelines).

Reasons for long delay?

Still, no one anticipated such a long interim period. Those of us who have been converted since the first century (I assume that none of my readers is more than 1915 years old) can be grateful for this delay, in God’s providence, but God has presumably also been taking into account an important factor that he specified in advanced. Jesus said that the good news must be preached among all nations before his return (Matt 24:14). Despite the Great Commission of 28:18-20, however, Jesus’s followers have never completely fulfilled this mission. Some generations were quite committed and effective; for many other generations of church history, however, we may thank God for sovereignly keeping the church from killing itself off. That is, a key condition has not yet been met.

Moreover, based on Old Testament prophecies about Israel turning to the Lord, early believers in Jesus expected God to bring about the consummation once the Jewish people recognized Jesus as their Messiah (Acts 3:19-21; cf. Matt 23:39; possibly Rev 11:13), although the time remained unknown (Acts 1:6-7). But in Romans 11 Paul suggests that God had sovereignly allowed Israel’s hardness to delay that time, to give Gentiles time to repent. (When I speak of Israel’s hardness, this does not mean that God did not welcome a significant remnant; the contrast is with “Israel as a whole” [Rom 11:26], and Paul undoubtedly wanted his own ministry among the Gentiles to provoke his people to repentance.)

Once the full measure of the Gentiles had come in, the Jewish people as a whole would be saved (11:25-26). (I translate “Israel as a whole” because this is how Jewish people in Paul’s era employed Paul’s phrase that is often translated “all Israel”; it didn’t necessarily mean every individual Jewish person.) From the rest of the context of Romans, it is clear that this salvation would come through turning to Christ (e.g., 3:9-26). My understanding of Rom 11 is that Paul believed that when the Jewish people saw the promised biblical influx of Gentiles worshiping Israel’s God and observing biblical morality, they would recognize that God was fulfilling his promises through Jesus and would embrace Jesus.

Unfortunately, despite billions of Gentiles who have now professed faith in Israel’s God, Paul’s solution never succeeded—because it was never really tried. Paul warned Gentile Christians not to boast against the Jewish branches (11:18)—precisely what much of Gentile Christendom did during the subsequent history of Christian anti-Semitism (e.g., the Inquisition of Jewish converts, the drowning of converts in baptism to prevent recanting, etc.) The situation has been changing in the past generation, and many believers hope that God is finally bringing about some of these biblical expectations.

But rather than complaining about the Lord’s return being delayed, we should be participating in God’s end-time plan needed to bring it about. The good news going to all the nations is a key biblical prerequisite for the end (Matt 24:14; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Rom 11:25-26; cf. Rev 5:9; 7:9). That is likely why 2 Peter urges us to be “looking for and hastening the day of God” (2 Pet 3:12)—God wants everyone to have opportunity for repentance (cf. 2 Pet 3:9).

Fulfilled prophecies: the bigger picture

When exploring prophecies that did not happen the way we expected, it is important not to miss the larger picture. The Bible includes some unambiguous prophecies that clearly precede their fulfillment, would have been unimaginable in their day, and yet have been dramatically fulfilled, some within our own living memory. While we may debate about some fulfillments, other fulfillments are absolutely clear, clear enough to invite solid faith in a faithful God.

On the usual date of Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, both predicted in advance the regathering of Judah after exile. No one had historical reasons to expect a large-scale regathering after such large-scale exiles as the Assyrians or Babylonians conducted. Yet the Medo-Persian king Cyrus instituted a new policy, also attested archaeologically in the Cyrus Cylinder, of sending peoples back to their locations of origin. This was a dramatic vindication of the true biblical prophets’ message.

Compare also the humanly unexpected survival of the Jewish people as a distinct people in contrast to the fate of surrounding peoples such as Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekites, and so forth. This is not a minor detail or a conditional prophecy, but suggests a surprising connection with the people through whom God introduced long-term monotheism into the world. Today over half the world’s population is at least officially monotheistic (largely Christians and Muslims).

I could talk further about fulfillment in Christ’s coming and what we can say on even purely historical grounds about that, but this post is already inordinately lengthy and I have addressed this question elsewhere (particularly the latter point in my Historical Jesus of the Gospels [Eerdmans, 2009]).

In the first century, the tiny church of God might have seemed destined to vanish like so many other religious sects of the day, especially when it became an object of official persecution in Rome under Nero (and in a more widespread way in some subsequent centuries). How is it that John envisions members from every people group before God’s throne (Rev 7:9)? Think also of the other Jewish messianic sects in Judea and Galilee. It seems more than coincidence that:
• This is the only one in this period that outlived the death of its founder, and the only one period that persists to this day
• Only Jesus’s movement claimed that he rose from the dead, with witnesses prepared to die for that claim
• Only Jesus’s movement claimed that they experienced the promised Spirit, on a scale exceeding even that of the Old Tesyament prophets
• Only Jesus’s movement claimed that he had sent them to the Gentiles
• Not only did they go to the Gentiles, but they had great success

Sometimes the church has spread to new regions even as it was dying or being suppressed in others. Over the course of the last century, we have witnessed the greatest shift in the Christian population in history. As Daniel Carroll Rodas and I noted in the introduction to Global Voices (Hendrickson, 2013, p. 1) “Many estimate that in 1900 … 16.7 percent of Christians lived in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. By 2010 it was 63.2 percent, and by 2025 it will be nearly 70 percent.” In the past half-century, evangelicals on these continents have multiplied roughly twelve times over, and already represent more than 80 percent of evangelicals in the world, far outnumbering those in the West.

Who would have believed it when a Jewish Christian prophet exiled to the island of Patmos had the audacity to prophesy the ultimate downfall of the empire who had banished him there? Who would have believed his vision of believers from every nation and language and tribe (Rev 5:9; 7:9)? Who could have imagined the good news being proclaimed among all peoples (Matt 24:14)? People in the Roman empire knew of India, China, of Africa at least as far south as Tanzania, and other far-flung locations, yet at the time they probably constituted far less than one-tenth of one-percent of the Roman empire.

Believers in the first century could look back on fulfilled promises of judgment against the great empires of Assyria and Babylon; the tiny people of God nevertheless remained. Today, as well, we can see God’s faithfulness in history, despite the frequent unfaithfulness of God’s people. Certainly Rome fell, but the faith some of its rulers tried to crush has spread among more peoples than ever before.

The prerequisite of spreading the good news has continued to advance, especially thanks to missions movements in Asia and elsewhere. (Proportionately speaking, Western Christians of the present generation are lagging behind, although that was untrue in many recent generations.) If we are eager to witness the consummation of God’s promises, we are invited to participate in their fulfillment. We may do so—provided our vision is not for our own comfort, but for meeting the world’s need and fulfilling our Lord’s honor.

Left Behind?

As new Left Behind movie hits the screens on October 3. If it gets people thinking about our Lord and about being ready for his coming, that is a very good thing. Nevertheless, there is a theological premise behind the Left Behind series that is problematic biblically. It is a premise that I was taught soon after my conversion, but as I read the supporting verses in context I quickly became convinced that every one of them was being used out of context. (Apologies to my dear friends who still hold this view.)

This is a doctrine widely held today, yet not a single text explicitly supports it, and no one in history articulated this view before 1830. I comment on this problem briefly in the blog post I wrote for a wider audience at:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-s-keener/left-behind_2_b_5883062.html

In addition, Huffington Post’s religion editor also interviewed me, along with two other scholars from varying perspectives, regarding this issue in the audio postcast (27 minutes) at:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/03/all-together-left-behind-_n_5926750.html

Dr. Michael Brown and I also discussed the issue on his Line of Fire broadcast (http://www.lineoffireradio.com/) on Oct. 8, 2014.

A Multicultural Multitude—Revelation 7:9-17

While there is some debate about the identity of the 144,000 in 7:1-8, everyone agrees that the innumerable multitude in the next vision refers to believers from all peoples—a vision that ultimately includes all of us who believe in Jesus.

These people are “from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9). Revelation uses this fourfold formula, in varying sequences, seven times. The formula echoes the book of Daniel. Daniel has the threefold formula six times; the Greek translation of Daniel makes the first instance (Dan 3:4) fourfold, as in Revelation. That context applies to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire.

By the time of Revelation, however, people would no longer think of “all nations” as part of the Babylonian empire. Another passage in Daniel predicted an innumerable multitude from all nations serving the Son of man (Dan 7:13-14). Yet despite the hyperbole of Roman imperial claims, most people in John’s urban audience in the Roman province of Asia knew about many other parts of the world beyond the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had trade ties with India, China, parts of Africa as far south as Tanzania, and northern Europe perhaps as far west as Iceland. The idea that members of all peoples would stand before God’s throne would have been unthinkable!

Much of John’s audience may have been shocked by the implausibility of his vision, yet we are living in its reality. By the second century, the greatest strongholds of Christian faith were in Syria, Egypt and what is now western Turkey. In the fourth century both the Roman empire and the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum in east Africa became predominantly Christian, and Jesus’s movement was spreading, usually in its Syrian forms, much further east in Asia. In different periods different regions had more of the gospel.

The shift in global Christianity over the past century has been one of the most dramatic in history. Some estimate that just 16.7 percent of Christians lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America in 1900; but that this figure will be close to 70 percent by 2025. This growth has been especially explosive among particular groups in the past generation. For example, in 1960, Africa, Asia and Latin America had an estimated fifty million evangelicals; today that figure is about 600 million, with a majority in Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Majority World evangelicals outnumber those in the West perhaps five times over. (These statistics are from Operation World and, following that resource, the introduction to a recent book edited by myself and Daniel Carroll, Global Voices.)

In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar demanded that all peoples worship the statue he made; in Revelation 13, the quintessential evil kingdom demands that all peoples worship the image of its ruler. Nebuchadnezzar and Revelation’s beast have their global empires, but Jesus has a true international, multicultural kingdom. Whereas Nebuchadnezzar and the beast impose their rule by force or deception, Jesus’s followers are those who love him and trust him because he gave his life to redeem us.

Notice what the believers in this passage are doing: worshiping God, they “serve day and night in temple,” like priests (Rev 7:15); in fact, Revelation elsewhere declares that they are a kingdom and priests (1:6; 5:10). Because they wear white robes like the martyrs in 6:9-11, many scholars think they are martyrs. In any case, they are people who persevered in faith during their time on earth and are now in heaven (7:14).

Yet they appear as a triumphant people hailing a conqueror; Israel often waved palm branches to hail a victorious leader (7:9). Whereas some Jewish people believed that they would constitute God’s end-time army to defeat the Gentiles, here God’s people are portrayed not with weapons but with branches, hailing the victor. And the victor, God’s conquering lion (5:5), turns out to be a slain lamb (5:6), who won the victory in God’s sight not by earthly conquests but by offering himself to suffer for truth and righteousness.

John declares that the lamb will shepherd them (7:17). This image is striking for two reasons. First, Israel’s chief shepherd in the Old Testament was God himself (e.g., Ps 23:1). The lamb here is God in the flesh. But second, lambs were not shepherds; lambs were in fact the most vulnerable members of the flock, who most needed a shepherd to protect them. Yet our shepherd is also a lamb who was slain for our sins; he understands our suffering because he became one of us and shared that suffering.

Revelation describes the hope that awaits us in terms familiar to John’s first audience from their Bibles. We will no longer be hungry or thirsty, nor suffer from sin or heat (7:16); our shepherd will guide us to springs of water (7:17). Most of this description comes from Isa 49:10, depicting God’s care for his people Israel. John’s depiction changes two important details: Jesus fills the divine role here, and all his followers belong to his people. John also says that Jesus will wipe away our tears (Rev 7:17; cf. 21:4), which alludes to Isa 25:8: when God raises the dead, he will wipe away his people’s tears.

Whatever we suffer, we may remain confident that our Lord loves us. For our sake he has already experienced suffering and death; he understands what we suffer. He is with us now and he will be with us forever. Weeping may endure for a night; but a morning is coming when our Lord will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Craig Keener is author of The NIV Application Commentary on Revelation (Zondervan, 2000, also available in Spanish and Chinese) and the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity; over half a million sold; also available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and some other languages). He and M. Daniel Carroll R. coedited Global Voices (Hendrickson, 2013).

Who are the 144,000?—Revelation 7:1-8

Did you know that you’re in the Bible? Sometimes we might wish that there were Bible stories about us, but in fact there are stories that talk about God’s people from all nations. Revelation 7:9-17 is one of these passages.

The scene before it, however, talks about the 144,000, twelve thousand from each tribe (Rev 7:1-8). Who are they?

If we take the number literally, we should also take the other details literally: Jewish male virgins (using Rev 14:1-5 also). For this reason, the interpretation offered by Jehovah’s Witnesses is inconsistent and cannot be correct.

Some scholars take the details as literally as possible. They argue that John envisions a literal 144,000 Jewish men from twelve tribes in the end-time. After all, many Jewish people expected the restoration of the lost tribes, and there is biblical reason to expect a special movement among the Jewish people near the end (Rom 11:25-27). This is a respectable scholarly interpretation, although most of the twelve tribes are no longer known.

Other scholars, by contrast, believe that Revelation intends the details here as figurative, communicating a different inspired point. They offer several reasons:
1. This is the number of God’s “servants” (Rev 7:3). Elsewhere in Revelation this title often includes all Jesus’s followers (1:1; 2:20; 22:3, 6).
2. They are those who follow Jesus and have been redeemed (14:3).
3. Revelation often uses symbols. After all, no one takes literally the woman clothed with the sun (12:1). Further, Revelation sometimes explains details as symbolic (1:20). A symbolic reading is actually more consistent with Revelation as a whole.
4. The numbers connect with a later passage in Revelation. The New Jerusalem is said to be 12,000 stadia (about 1400 miles, or 2200 kilometers!) wide, long, and high, with a wall of 144 cubits (about 200 feet or 65 meters). Through this narrative connection, Revelation portrays them as the people of God for the city of God—they are new Jerusalemites.
5. That’s why 14:1 portrays them “standing on Mount Zion” with Jesus. Zion was the temple or, more generally, Jerusalem.
6. Why might they be described in terms of the twelve tribes? This listing of the tribes is unusual, and even leaves out the tribe of Dan. But elsewhere in Revelation all believers are described as spiritually Jewish (cf. Rev 2:9; 3:9)—what Paul would call grafted into the heritage of God’s people. The churches appear as lampstands (1:20)—the standard symbol in the ancient Mediterranean world for Jewish communities.
7. The next vision speaks of a numberless multitude from all nations. We could read this as a contrast instead of as a parallel, but we should note the description of this multitude …
8. They serve him day and night in his temple (7:15)—just like priests in ancient Israel (Ps 134:1). That they will never hunger, thirst, or suffer heat (Rev 7:16), and that the Lord will lead them to springs of water, echoes promises to Israel in the time of restoration (Isa 49:10). That God will wipe away all tears from their eyes (Rev 7:17) likewise echoes a promise probably especially to God’s people (Isa 25:8). In other words, they are portrayed as God’s people just as the 144,000 are. The passages thus appear to be parallel, with the second further explaining the first.

For these reasons, I believe that the case for reading them as representative of all God’s people is stronger than the case for reading them as a literal 144,000. Thus, the 144,000 may stand for all those who will someday be in the New Jerusalem—all New Jerusalemites, all of God’s people.

Another possible view is compatible with this one, although I am less certain about it. Many scholars see the people in the second passage as martyrs. Some see the 144,000 in the first passage as God’s end-time army, because they are portrayed as consecrated men numbered like a military census in the Old Testament. These views are debated, but if they are correct, then God’s church is portrayed as an “army” of nonviolent martyrs.

If this is correct, a parallel would then emerge. In Revelation 5:5-6, John heard about the lion from the tribe of Judah—the conquering, warlike Messiah. When he turned, however, what he saw was instead a slaughtered lamb. That is, Jesus conquered not in the expected way, but through laying down his life. Here in chapter 7 Revelation might portray the end-time army that some expected as instead a movement of martyrs—of people who laid down their lives to announce Jesus and his purposes in the world. What price are we willing to pay to follow Jesus’s truth and depend on him?

The “army of martyrs” interpretation may be correct. I am less certain about it than about these being God’s people, because some of the supporting evidence is less than certain. I do believe that the evidence is strong, however, that this multitude represents God’s people.

Who are the 144,000? You are, if you trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Together we have a mission to honor Jesus, no matter what the cost.

Craig Keener is author of The NIV Application Commentary on Revelation (Zondervan, 2000).

Suffering and exploitation in Revelation

Does Revelation have any relevance for today? Among the points where the book’s message might help people today is its challenge to the security people often feel going about their own lives while neglecting the suffering of others. Revelation originally addressed seven churches; two or three of them were facing significant suffering, while many of the others felt comfortable as part of a social and economic system that ignored and sometimes inflicted suffering. They all lived in a society that honored the wealthy, the powerful and aristocratic celebrities while neglecting or despising the weak.

A corporate embodiment of evil in Revelation is often called “Babylon.” The name made sense to Revelation’s first audience, who knew that an earlier Babylon had destroyed the temple and enslaved God’s people. Most scholars see “Babylon” in Revelation as a transparent analogy for the empire reigning when Revelation was written — Rome. After all, Rome had also destroyed the temple and enslaved God’s people less than three decades before when Revelation was probably written. Some Jewish people had long envisioned Rome as an evil empire, a successor to oppressive Babylon. Although Rome fits the description for John’s day, the same spirit or ethos lives on in other oppressive regimes and economically exploitive systems today.

Revelation climaxes with Babylon’s fall just before narrating the return of Jesus. Scholars often observe that the list of imports to Babylon in Revelation 18:12-13 closely resembles the known imports into Rome. Much of the list depicts luxury goods, such as pearls for which divers in the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf had to risk their safety; gold and silver taken from slave-worked mines seized from Spain; the ivory trade that had already nearly driven extinct Syrian and north African elephants; and the like.

At least one item suggests exploitation even without being a luxury good: Rome imported massive quantities of wheat to feed its large population. To maintain stability in the capital, Rome distributed wheat free to its residents, but at the expense of the overtaxed peasants in Egypt who had to raise the grain. Although Egypt was itself once a mighty Empire, Egypt’s peasants around the fertile Nile now had to send a large amount of their produce to Rome. Yet these peasants suffered from lack of resources themselves. Possibly up to one-third of their own children died within a year of birth; most families crowded into small dwellings. So oppressive was the exploitation that on some occasions when harvests were bad and a village heard that a tax collector was coming, the entire village skipped town and started a new village somewhere else. The climax of Revelation’s list, however, is the most directly exploitive practice of all: “the bodies and lives of people” — Rome’s notorious slave trade.

In contrast to inequitable trade patterns in the Roman empire, international trade can raise living standards when carried out justly and with cross-cultural wisdom. Yet one needs little knowledge of economics to recognize that some systems contain elements that unjustly profit some peoples while others are exploited. To take one commonly cited example: much of the coltan used in electronic devices is mined by impoverished workers in Congo-DRC under unsafe conditions; natural resources in the same nation help fuel civil conflicts and degrade the ecosystem on which people depend. Likewise, it is common knowledge that an international slave trade continues, often forcing women and children from poorer regions into sexual service for more economically endowed regions.

Revelation suggested that the empire’s economy, built on injustice, was ultimately doomed to collapse, taking with it the economic systems too dependent on it. On the one hand, Revelation offered comfort and hope of a better future for the suffering churches. To those churches that were complacent about others’ sufferings, however, the book sounded a stark warning: there is a God of justice, and those who unjustly indulge their comforts at the expense of others will one day have to face reality. Perhaps Revelation still has something to teach us today.

(Note: this post is a condensed version of an article originally published as part of Craig’s ongoing blogging on the Huffington Post website. See more of his articles here.)