The Tribulation: The Beginning of the End
"Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate." (Daniel 9:24-27, KJV, emphasis mine)
With these words, Daniel gave us a basic framework of how time would proceed, from the rebuilding of Jerusalem, to the coming of the Messiah, to the time that mankind would come to know of, and fear.
As Daniel lays out the timeline, Jesus speaks of a time of great trouble that would scare folks to death; a time that the entire planet would be judged in a series of judgments that would pound the world so ferociously, that if those days weren't shortened by God, NO ONE would survive it at all.
"When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) 16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened. " (Matthew 24:15-22, KJV, emphasis mine)
Now, even though Jesus says that after the "abomination of desolation" would be "Great Tribulation", the whole period is referred to as the Tribulation:
"And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them." (Revelation 7:13-15, KJV, emphasis mine)
This event takes place fairly early in the Tribulation, between the sixth and seventh seals being broken. So, I would say it's okay to call the entire time "The Tribulation".
With the reason it's called the Tribulation and a bit of where it came from in place, we can now go to the start of it in scriptures, and see how it begins...
"After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, "Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this." At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." (Revelation 4, NIV)
So, what does it all mean? What's with the creatures, and the 24 elders? And what's the rainbow for? And a sea of glass? And is God made out of jewels or something? What's the deal here?
First off, keep in mind that when scripture says "as if it were", or "like unto", for example, it does NOT mean "exactly as"! It's making a comparison TO the closest thing we have in our experience. What we are seeing is the Throne room of God, as best as John can describe it. When Ezekiel and Isaiah both saw he Lord, they could scarcely conceive of how to describe him. So if John's description seems fanciful, keep in mind that he is seeing in the spirit a whole different world entirely, and a scene there that defies the languages of earth's ability to paint a picture of it to us.
All of that being said, God's appearance is likened unto fine gems of John's era, the way the glimmered and the radiance they had. God is not described in features that a person would have, but in his glory and majesty. All we see of him in this description is the beauty and brilliance he shows. The rainbow, which he gave to man as a promise that he would never again destroy the ear with water (Genesis 9:13-16), is predominantly green in it's description. In nature, we see green as a sign of life, and here, green a pleasant hue, is predominant in the multi-hued display about the throne. Additionally, emeralds have a shimmer and a clarity that a5re a sight to behold, and this rainbow is indeed that. As for the sea of glass, it does not point to a literal sea per se, but hearkens back to the Israelite Temple in Jerusalem:
"He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it." (1 Kings 7:23, NIV)
They had a great basin of water, with which to cleanse themselves ritually. In this case, the "sea" was as clear and sparkling as crystal glass.
The creatures are described with exacting features, and the words, "like" appear to describe their faces; the rest is "as is." The first, like a lion, show power and ferocity; the second, an ox, portrays steadfastness and strength; the third, like a man, indicates reason and thought; the fourth, like an eagle, conveys swiftness and grace. Their descriptions hearken back to Ezekiel's vision in Ezekiel 1:10-14; but there, each creature had these faces, where here, each one of them has a separate, differing face. The eyes all over them would indicate that they can see in all directions at once, and that at no time are all, of their eyes "closed'.
Now, as for the 24 elders: clearly they are exalted, as they have crowns; and they are righteous, seeing as they are dressed in white, a sign of purity and holiness in scripture. As for their crowns, this is the clue to their identity: the greek word describing their crown is not diatomah, a crown of authority and command, but is instead stephanas, a wreath of victory. In scripture, those that strive for the prize in "the race" are promised a "crown of victory":
"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." (1 Corinthians 9:25, NIV)
So, we see then that by comparing it to scripture and looking at what the word "crown" denotes, it leaves one possibility: the church.
The next chapter describes the events that transpire in the throne room:
"Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals." Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth." Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!" The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped." (Revelation 5, NIV)
It's pretty clear that from the description given, that the "lamb" is Jesus Christ, who has been described in scripture as "the lamb of God." All the descriptors of him in this chapter clearly point Jesus out. What isn't so clear is what the scroll represents, ad why only he can open it.
We'll examine that in part 2, when Jesus takes the scroll and begins to break the seals...