For the compromised and apathetic church, disaster is ahead.
For the church pursuing God’s will and mission with passion, the greatest delight and joy is ahead.
The Bible calls it “the day of the Lord.”
Understanding the Story
Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” know that the book ends differently than the climactic final movie. In the epic conclusion of “The Return of the King,” the book tells how the hobbits returned to the Shire. There they found unexpected trouble: ruffians in charge, houses destroyed, trees torn down. The evil wizard Saruman has come to the Shire to control it and destroy it. When the hobbits found their beloved land in such a terrible plight, there was only one thing to do. They had to reclaim it!
In the large-scale narrative of the Bible, God is the good and kind Creator. He gave the world into human hands. Adam, then Abraham and then Israel are to represent God. They are to live by justice, righteousness and love. However, sin, evil structures and demonic forces have conspired to warp God’s good creation again and again. What should be done?
The answer is for God to reclaim it. So, in some preliminary steps, and in the arrival of Jesus Christ, and then in the Second Coming, God reclaims the world. The reclamations bring convulsions and trauma to a world gone awry. These reclamations in the Bible are called “the day of the Lord.”
By one count, the Old Testament uses the exact expression “the day of the Lord” 19 times. The New Testament uses the exact expression four times (Acts 2:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:2, 2 Peter 3:10). However, the numbers do not tell the whole story. There are about two dozen variations of the term. Other phrases include “on that day,” “the day of the anger of YHWH,” “YHWH has a day” and more. The final use in the Bible is in Revelation 16:14, where it is called “the great day of God Almighty.” To understand it, let us break it down into three contrasts: it is both near and far, involves both judgment and blessing, and relates both to Israel and the nations.
Near and Far
With the idea in mind that God reclaims the world in some preliminary ways, we can note that in Joel 1:15, Zephaniah 1:7 and Isaiah 13:6, the day is said to be near. However, it is not so near, and it has some preliminary events in Malachi 4:5 (Elijah must come first). Like mountains that look close to each other from a distance, but may be 400 or more miles apart, the day of the Lord can have a near and far manifestation spoken of right next to each other. To put it another way, the day of the Lord both has come and will come.
Judgment and Blessing
At times, the language of disaster that the day will bring is terrifying. At other times, the language is of great joy and comfort. Sometimes both can be found together in a single prophetic book. For example, Isaiah 34:8 speaks of a day of vengeance and recompense. In Isaiah 13:6, it is a day of destruction. Yet, in Isaiah 2:2–4, it is a time of great peace. Likewise, Zephaniah 1:7–8 speaks of a day of great sacrifice and punishment. Zephaniah 1:15 speaks of a day of trouble and distress, destruction and desolation, darkness and gloom. On the other hand, Zephaniah 3:16–20 points to a day of great comfort, praise and restoration.
Israel and the Nations
In a surprising way, the day will be a time of unexpected disaster for Israel (Amos 5:18–20). It will be judgment on all the nations as well (Obadiah 15). However, it will also be a time of great joy and happiness for some in Israel, such as the humble and responsive to God (Zephaniah 3:14). It is even a grand opportunity for the nations (Zephaniah 3:9-10). How do we put this all together?
The New Testament
The New Testament teaches that the day will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). The heavens and earth will pass away, transformed into a new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10–13). A “man of lawlessness” will come first (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). Revelation leads up to the great day of the Lord (16:14). To help us understand, let us return to the Shire.
Reclaiming the Shire
It is not an easy task for the hobbits to reclaim the Shire. They have to fight one more “last” battle. J.R.R. Tolkien titles it, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Some of the ruffians, the men who have taken over and ruined things, are killed. Even some hobbits are killed. To reclaim the Shire involves turmoil and struggle. A restoration or new creation is never easy. The key is to be on the right side, to not have collaborated or compromised with the forces of evil. That is why the teaching of the Bible about the day of the Lord, eschatology and especially the book of Revelation is about transformation, not speculation. The book of Revelation, like the rest of the Bible, is really a book about discipleship. God is reclaiming the universe, and we want to line up with the day that is coming, not the one that is past.
Revelation: The Final Day
It may be unexpected, but five of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2–3 are told to repent. For example, Ephesus has left its first love, Thyatira tolerates “Jezebel,” and Laodicea is lukewarm. At Pergamum, they hold to false teaching. Some in Sardis have soiled their garments. However, when one remembers that in the Old Testament it was not all Israel, but the humble and responsive remnant that found deliverance and escaped judgment (see Zephaniah 2:1–3) in contrast to the treacherous and profane priests and prophets (Zephaniah 3:3), it makes sense. The test is the present life of a person who is part of the people of God. A time at the altar 30 years ago may not lead to passionate discipleship, evangelism and justice-seeking today. The believers are told to “wake up” (Revelation 3:2).
The reason is that deliverance and judgment are two sides of the same coin. Using the imagery of the book of Exodus — where the Lord rebalanced the scales of justice and righteousness, and punished the Egyptians for their exploitation and idolatry — Revelation describes God rebalancing the scales for the final time. It is salvation through judgment.
That means dealing with things on three levels. First, there is the level of personal sin, even sin that has crept into the people of God. Then, there is the structural level, called Babylon in the book of Revelation. Then, there is also the spiritual level. Revelation 12 points to the serpent of old, the devil. He has two minions, a beast from the land and a beast from the sea. All of the levels of evil have to be dealt with for God to reclaim the world. Nothing short of a new heavens and new earth will do (Revelation 21:1). The question is: How to get there?
It becomes complicated because people are tied into systems, and evil can have an attractive face. In the 1991 novel, “The Firm,” John Grisham created a character named Mitch McDeere. A recent law school graduate, he is wined and dined at a law firm in Memphis. The offer is almost too good to be true — a great salary, incredible perks, benefits second to none. However, the firm is a front for the mafia from Chicago. No one actually has ever left the firm alive. Can Mitch escape? Only with a lot of careful decisions and some danger; he needs help from some special friends. A new lifestyle will be necessary. After all, it can take 10 good decisions to reverse the course of one bad one.
In the book of Revelation, God is doing nothing less than reversing the course (and curse) of the universe. There are seals, trumpets and bowls. There are battles that do not really occur (read Chapters 16 and 19 carefully). In a series of visions designed to wake up and warm up the discipleship of the believers in the seven churches, Revelation seeks to pull the believers from their idolatries, collaborations (with the Roman emperor cult) and compromises to “walk … in white” (3:4 KJV) and be “a conqueror” (6:2). It warns not to participate with the beast. It is a call to discipleship.
Revelation and the rest of the Bible do not present a timetable for the end times. Nor is it easy to chart the events, or play Bible pingpong and bounce from verse to verse. The careful reader can note the lack of some of the staples of western evangelical Christian beliefs. For example, there is no mention of a rapture, no mention of a seven-year tribulation, and Revelation never actually says Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years. In our attempts at speculation, we have missed the transformation that the book is seeking to develop in our lives. It is putting God front and center. That is why it points to “the great day of God Almighty” (16:14). This is God’s time, at last.
The Day of the Lord Revisited
By now, we should know what to expect. There will be judgment and blessing in Revelation (and there is). Tears are wiped away, but there is also the lake of fire. It should be both near and far (and it is). There are the idolatries of Rome, and the view beyond Rome. It should be both for the people of God and the nations. Even some of the people of God may be found wanting, as the corrupt priests and prophets Zephaniah mentioned were. The convulsions, disasters and terrors are a purging of a world in the process of being reclaimed for God, by God, and through God.
How to live in a world that God will reclaim? We learn throughout the book of Revelation. For example, let us take Chapter 14. It begins with a vision of the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and ends with a harvest of the earth. As often happens, there is a flash-back and a flash-forward. In the midst of the chapter, we learn some things about true discipleship. There is purity (v. 4). There is truthfulness, without any lies (v. 5). There is resistance to the ways of the beast (v. 9). There is perseverance and obedience (v. 12). Like farmers in east Tennessee who stayed loyal to the Union during the Civil War, or the French Resistance who did not collaborate with the Nazis during World War II, followers of the Lamb live a difficult, focused life under pressure. There are “benefits” of the system that will have to be resisted. There are difficult choices, but the people of the Lamb have the constant hope and vision that the territory will be reclaimed.
It is also a call not to be pulled into systems that shape us in ways contrary to God’s will, plan and mission. For the first readers of the book of Revelation, it was the emperor cult. For us? Consider youth sports and travel leagues. With a desire to maximize the talents of a teenager, a family is soon spending hundreds or thousands of dollars, traveling across many states, missing the gathering of God’s people. Have they been pulled into a system that is ultimately compromising their discipleship and leaving them lukewarm in their faith? Has the Word been displaced by ESPN?
In the day of the Lord, God reclaims the universe. The Bible calls us to transformation, not speculation. It calls us to make a hard turn in discipleship with new lifestyle choices rather than compromised collaboration or apathy with a system about to fail. We pull ourselves free from the systems and structures that have caused us to lose sight of God’s kingdom. We walk with God in white. “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15 and 13:9, Revelation 13:9).
Timothy Dwyer, Ph.D., is a professor of Bible and ministry at Warner University and the author of a forthcoming LIGHT + LIFE Publishing book on this topic. Dwyer, an Azusa Pacific University alumnus, previously served as a professor of Christian Scriptures at Roberts Wesleyan College.