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Eating an elephant

Do you remember the riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?” In case you don’t, the answer is, “One bite at a time.”  Now I’ve never heard of anyone actually eating elephant, but that’s not really the point of the riddle—it’s aimed at helping us see that the way to tackle any big, daunting project is by breaking it down into smaller steps. Our oldest daughter had a teacher in elementary school who put it this way, “Yard by yard, life is hard; inch by inch, life’s a cinch.”

That’s a great lesson to learn at any age, but it’s also one that we can easily overlook as adults. We’re used to getting things done—quickly. Push a button or manipulate a keyboard and the world is ours (or at least it seems that way). We can communicate with almost anyone, order things that will be sent to our doorstep, choose endless entertainment options, and much, much more. However, there is no key for patience. When something comes along that can’t be handled immediately, it can seem overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be if we remember to break it down into bites.

That’s exactly how to approach the book of Revelation—one bite at a time.  It can be an intimidating, overwhelming book for anyone trying to swallow it whole. But if it is approached incrementally, a few verses at a time, it becomes much more manageable.  Let me illustrate this with a “bite” from the book.

At the beginning of Revelation we read:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.

Since John has just told the seven first century churches he is writing (1:4), that “the time is near” (v. 3), and the  revelation he is sharing “must soon take place” (v. 1)—we’re immediately thrown into a quandary. How can the things John is speaking of take place “soon” if they involve the return of Jesus? These time statements and the coming of Jesus seem mutually exclusive. How can they both be true?

When we hear the word “coming,” we think of the return of Jesus at the end of time (Acts 1:9-11; Hebrews 9:27-28). But the word is actually used many times in Scripture when the final return of Jesus isn’t in view. Take a look at John 14:18, 23 and see if the “coming” there doesn’t sound more like God and Jesus dwelling in the believer through the Holy Spirit rather than the appearing of Christ at the end of time. Then take a look at Matthew 24:30 (which is remarkably similar to the language of Revelation 1:7). A “coming” is spoken of here which took place in Jesus’ generation (v. 34). It obviously isn’t His return at the end of time—it’s His coming in judgment upon Jerusalem in 70 AD.

I think coming is used in a similar way in Revelation 1:7. I believe it refers to Jesus’ judgment upon Domitian and the Roman Empire because of their oppression of His people (6:9-11). This syncs with what we’re told at the end of the book where the time statements and the coming of Jesus are joined together by Christ as He says, Look, I am coming soon!(22:12), and “Yes, I am coming soon” (22:20).

This also syncs with Old Testament usage. In Isaiah 19:1 God is said to be riding on a swift cloud and “coming to Egypt.” Micah says the same kind of thing in regard to judgment coming upon Jerusalem and Samaria (1:1-3). There’s more of this kind of thing in Isaiah 26:20-21; 66:15; and Daniel 7:13-14.

All of these Scriptures tell us something fairly simple and basic and of great importance: “coming” is often used in a way that is not referring to the final return of Jesus. It has to do with the Lord coming in blessing (as in John 14), or coming in judgment upon some group of people (Matthew 24:30).

I’ve written a little thing called The Thrill of Hope. It’s a bite-sized approach to the book of Revelation. If you’re interested, you can order it here.

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