Bible Study with Jairus – Revelation 2
Transcending Time: The Concept of Time in Revelation
The book of Revelation is written in the past tense, which seems to indicate that the events it describes have already happened. But a lot of the prophecies in the book are still future; we are still waiting for their fulfillment. How can we understand the difference between time and eternity in the book of Revelation?
As we saw in our study of Revelation 1, a lack of understanding of Biblical symbolism can prevent us from understanding the book of Revelation. Similarly, a misunderstanding of the concept of time will limit our understanding of this magnificent book. However, through the Spirit, we can transcend time and space. This will greatly help us understand the book of Revelation.
The denomination where I was saved was strongly influenced by “dispensationalism,” a concept taught by Darby and Scofield. These teachers believe that the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 represent seven different ages. The church in Ephesus represents the original, apostolic church; the church of Smyrna represents the persecuted church in the Roman Empire; the church in Pergamum represents the church’s downfall after the establishment of Christianity as the state religion; and the church in Sardis represents the church after the Reformation; the church in Philadelphia represents the great revivals and the rise of the Missionary Era; and the church in Laodicea represents the lukewarm end-time church. Based on this theory, God eventually had no choice but to judge the believers of this age. Only a few believers were victorious.
Teachings like this are circulating in many churches. Some of these teachings are correct, but often, these teachings are too limited by the concept of time. These seven churches may represent seven churches in different periods, but they could also depict seven different postures of the church in the same time period. Furthermore, these letters to the seven churches transcend time. They are the word of God through the Spirit to the church throughout history. Therefore, we must transcend the concept of time and understand the word of God through the Spirit.
How Linear Time Limits Our Thinking
Does the Bible record everything in chronological order? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For example, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke may have been written in somewhat chronological order, but the story of John is not in chronological order. The stories of John’s Gospel are structured to illustrate certain truths. John presents these truths one by one by combining different stories together. So what does the order of the letters to the seven churches convey?
On the one hand, these letters are structured in a certain type of chronological order, because some things have not happened yet, but will happen in the future. Yet the book of Revelation was written in the past tense; in the eyes of the author, it had already happened. How do we understand these time differences?
We know that Jesus was crucified on the cross 2,000 years ago, yet the book of Revelation says that He appeared “as though had been slain,” presumably recently (Revelation 5:6). Later, the Bible says Christ was “slain before the foundation of the world” (13:8). Similarly, 1 Peter 1:2 says that Jesus Christ was “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” and verse 20 says, “Christ was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you.” The Lamb existed long ago and will continue to exist in eternity. But he entered time and appeared to us at a specific time and place. Therefore, from this perspective, time is relative to us. If we imagine time as a circle, then outside time (the circle) is eternity, and inside the circle (time) is the realm where we live as material human beings. Generally speaking, we can’t break out of time, just like we can’t go beyond the speed of light. But we know that if our speed approaches the speed of light, we will exceed the limitations of time. Einstein’s theory of relativity explains this point of view. Similarly, we can break through the limitations of time in the spirit.
We often think that time is linear and sequential. This linear thinking creates a lot of constraints and hinders our understanding of many things. A linear thinker would say, “How can the Lamb be recently killed in Revelation 5 and killed before the foundation of the world in Revelation 13?” If we are limited by linear thinking, we will not be able to understand this paradox. Instead, it is helpful to think of time as a circle. Outside the circle is eternity, and inside the circle is time. The Lord Jesus said that He is the Alpha and the Omega, which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. If we put all the letters of the Greek alphabet in a circle, this can represent time. When time is imagined as a circle, it will help us understand these dilemmas. If time is a circle, the starting point is very near the ending point.
On a school track, runners compete against each other on a circular track. As they run laps around the track, their positions change, and their perspectives on the starting line and finish line also change. For instance, when the runners start their race, the coach’s eagle looks huge; but when the runners are halfway around the track, the bird looks very small. Both are correct. It’s just that the runner’s vantage point has changed. In the same way, when the apostle John saw the slain Lamb in Revelation 5, he felt that He had just been slain, but when he ran forward to Revelation 13, he said that the lamb had been slain before the foundation of the world. This is because John was looking at the lamb from a different distance, perspective, and angle.
The Spirit Can Break the Limitations of Time
We must understand that the limits of time can be superseded. If the runners leave the track after the competition is over, they will be completely outside of the realm of the competition. Time is like a track, a boundary established by God inside which we can seek salvation and learn to know him here on earth.
Here is another example. When NASA recently crashed a spacecraft into an asteroid during a test, it changed the orbit of the asteroid. Time is like the orbit of this asteroid. When hit by an external force, the orbit can change.
Time is also like Highway I-495 which runs around Washington, D.C. As long as we continue traveling on this highway, we circle D.C. But if we take any of the exits, we leave the circle. In the same way, we can exit time. How? We can leave the realm of time in the Spirit.
The Spirit can raise us up to a new realm of experience and give us a perspective that transcends time. When we are free from the limits of time, we can observe the events taking place within time. We will observe them from an outside perspective, like the spectators observe the people running in the track. From a high vantage point, we have a completely different perspective.
The content recorded in the Book of Revelation takes place within time, but the Book of Revelation helps us see from a perspective beyond time. If we try to understand it from within time, we will encounter limitations that lead to misunderstandings. For example, is the church within time or beyond time? On the one hand, Revelation tells the church of the church’s birth, growth, and development to spiritual maturity within time. On the other hand, the church is beyond time. The Bible says that “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). So, did the Lord speak to the seven churches within time? Or beyond time? If it is within time, were these letters addressed to the seven churches in Asia in the time of the apostle John, or to the church today? Should we treat this timeline as linear or circular? A linear timeline is constantly moving forward and never repeats itself. Circular time is repetitive. Events can be constantly replicated. At the same time, if an event is beyond time, it is not constrained by the limits of time.
I believe that Dispensationalism is too limited in its concept of time. It is too linear. Even though in many ways, the historical development of the church seems to match up pretty well with the messages to the seven churches, in other ways it does not. The first two letters to the churches indeed seem to correspond to the original church which was persecuted by the Roman Empire and the compromising church that joined itself to the Roman Empire and the secular world. But after that, it’s more difficult to see the correlation. Dispensationalism correlates the church in Sardis to the church of Reformation, and the church in Philadelphia to the dispensationalist revivals. (Countless dispensational churches consider themselves to be the church in Philadelphia.) Does this mean that everyone who believes they are the church in Philadelphia will later experience the death and fall of their church, as happened to the church in Laodicea? I believe this view is a little too limited by linear thinking.
To a certain extent, church history is no doubt a linear development. But it is also a circle, a realm that can be viewed from inside or from outside. The attitudes of the seven churches in the book of Revelation continue to repeat themselves in churches at different times and in different places. God’s people continue to make mistakes, correct their mistakes, and learn, thereby becoming mature. We are God’s pottery; God is the craftsman; time is the furnace. The process of being refined in the furnace requires time. After we have been refined and have matured, time will no longer be necessary. We will enter eternity. During the refining process, our dross is discarded and our gold is retained. Dross represents things that dwell within time, and gold represents eternal things, or beyond time. Therefore, in the process of understanding the book of Revelation, we must see which concepts are temporary “dross” that dwells within time, and which ones are eternal “gold” that dwells beyond time. Time is the furnace that will refine us.
While reading the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation, it’s important to distinguish between the commands that are restricted to a certain time period and the concepts that are outside of time. There is a staggering contrast between these two. As I have said many times, Jesus’ letters to the churches are presented in a sandwich structure. The first part contains words of praise, the middle section contains words of reproach, and the last part contains words of encouragement. This structure is both outside of and within time. The entire Bible is structured like this. Before Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, mankind was perfectly good; although they dwelt within time, people had no sin. The period of time before Genesis 3 also included eternity past, as mentioned in John 1. The middle portion of the sandwich contains Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. After this, Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, time comes to an end, and people will enter into eternity. The last section is the end of the book of Revelation, in which the eternal state resembles the pre-fall Garden of Eden. In a sense, the end of time returns to the beginning of time. The refining fire of time has ended, and time is done away with. Not only does time disappear, but “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). Time, death, and Hades are tools in the hands of God to help us enter eternity.
Time is Like Photography: Long and Close Shots
In my prophetic dreams, I have often been taken to heaven, where I have viewed heavenly scenes outside of time. But simultaneously, I continued to live in the material realm of time. How could I experience these spiritual realities while limited by my material body? These experiences taught me that I need to learn to switch perspectives with ease. On the one hand, I will live forever, and I am already beginning my eternal life right now. (Many people think that eternal life starts after death, which is incorrect. Eternal life starts the moment we are saved!) On the other hand, I am temporarily living my eternal life within the constraints of time. So I must be able to switch quickly back and forth between the two different perspectives. I often tell my wife about my dreams of heaven. She says, “You don’t even sound like you are living in this world. When presenting your experiences and the things you have learned, you should take into account the different feelings and perspectives of the people around you.”
The Book of Revelation does a great job of speaking about spiritual, timeless realities while also speaking of earthly, time-bound events. These two narratives intersect and switch seamlessly back and forth. One moment, he is discussing things in the spirit, in heaven, beyond time. The next, he is speaking of temporal things on earth. We must be able to switch freely between these two perspectives, just like a camera lens switches freely between close and long shots. Therefore, when reading the book of Revelation, we must understand which events are earthly and which ones are heavenly; which ones are within time, and which ones are eternal. We must learn to see the church in the book of Revelation the same way a geologist sees a gold mine. A geologist does not classify a gold mine by the amount of soil that surrounds the ore, but by the amount of gold. The process in the Book of Revelation is the process of refining the gold to eliminate the useless rock and sand.
When we realize that God’s will for the church lies outside of time and within eternity, we can understand our ultimate purpose and direction so that we don’t get lost in our current experiences of suffering. And when we look at the temporal needs and weaknesses of the church, we will see the ways we need to be purified so we can cooperate with God’s discipline, which removes our dross and makes us spiritually mature. When we read Revelation, we must constantly switch back and forth between these two different perspectives.
Dispensationalist eschatology and other similar belief systems seem to produce negative results. Many people are restricted by this type of linear thinking. They compare the seven churches in Revelation to the seven ages of the church. The last age is Laodicea, the lukewarm church. God will eventually come to judge the world, take to heaven all the overcomers in the church, and discipline other people. This explanation is partially correct, but it has an overly negative focus. According to Revelation, the last days are extremely glorious. The book of Revelation does contain negative events, such as various judgments, the acts of the evil spirits, and our rebellion; but it is also full of positive visions, encouragement, spiritual harvests, and victory. The appearance of the bride of Christ and spiritual overcomers in chapter 12 is the turning point in the book of Revelation. Later, with the help of God and the angels, the bride of Christ fights against Satan and his army and wins the victory. This not only brings in the glorious millennial kingdom, but also ushers in the end of the age, the new heaven and new earth, and eternity.
We must re-examine our eschatology because many people are deeply influenced by negative eschatology. As soon as there is a sign of trouble, such as disasters, wars, and darkness in the church, they immediately become discouraged, waiting for God to judge them and take them away. They give up trying. This is actually a trick of Satan.
The Lord Jesus taught his followers to pray, “May God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If God had wanted us to fail in the last days, the Lord Jesus would not have needed to pray this prayer. God’s will will eventually be done on earth as it is in heaven. As Habakkuk 2:14 says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (see also Isaiah 11:9). Isaiah 60:1-3 also says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
When the Israelites came out of Egypt, God used a pillar of fire to divide the Israelites and the Egyptians. The Israelites were in the pillar of fire and the Egyptians were in darkness. Whether we are in darkness or in the light of the pillar of fire depends entirely on whose side we are on. If we stand with God and God’s elect, we will be illuminated by the pillar of fire. But if we stand with the enemy, we will be in darkness. Unfortunately, many of God’s elect have been deceived by the enemy in the last days. They stand in darkness. If your eschatology is negative, dark, and escapist, you may have been deceived by the enemy. You need to pray that God will enlighten you so that you can stand with the right team. In the last days, we should rise and shine. We should not only “shine like a star,” as Daniel said, but also “shines brighter and brighter until full day”! (Proverbs 4:18)
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.