Introduction (and Prologue) to Revelation: Part 6

Below are my notes from yesterday’s teaching in Revelation. These notes include not only the end of my introduction to the book, but also some comments on the first three verses of the book (The prologue).  Enjoy!

PJ

The Outline

I believe that in order to put this book together and understand the flow of this book, there are some things we need to take into consideration regarding the outline of the book.

Different people from different schools of thought have strong opinions about the flow of this book. Johnson divides the book into three[i] major sections:

  1. The Prologue 1:1-8
  2. The Body 1:9-22:9
  3. The Epilogue 22:6-21

John MacArthur[ii], a dispensationalist, outlines the book like this:

  1. The Things which You Have Seen (1:1–20)
  2. The Prologue (1:1–8)
  3. The Vision of the Glorified Christ (1:9–18)
  4. The Apostle’s Commission to Write (1:19, 20)
  5. The Things which Are (2:1–3:22)
  6. The Letter to the Church at Ephesus (2:1–7)
  7. The Letter to the Church at Smyrna (2:8–11)
  8. The Letter to the Church at Pergamos (2:12–17)
  9. The Letter to the Church at Thyatira (2:18–29)
  10. The Letter to the Church at Sardis (3:1–6)
  11. The Letter to the Church at Philadelphia (3:7–13)
  12. The Letter to the Church at Laodicea (3:14–22)

III. The Things which Will Take Place after This (4:1–22:21)

  1. Worship in Heaven (4:1–5:14)
  2. The Great Tribulation (6:1–18:24) This is the majority of the book!
  3. The Return of the King (19:1–21)
  4. The Millennium (20:1–10)
  5. The Great White Throne Judgment (20:11–15)
  6. The Eternal State (21:1–22:21)

MacArthur sees the book as a continuous/progressive chronological outline of the things that are to come. Men like Baptist scholar Jim Hamilton, who are not dispensationalists, also read the book chronologically to some degree.

What is most distinctive about MacArthur’s schema is the fact that so much of the book is set in the future. I think that there are serious issues with this, not the least of which is the fact that if most of the book is set in the future then how would this have meant anything at all to John’s original audience? They were undergoing tremendous persecution, and if all these tribulations are all supposed to be in the future (and we’ll throw in a pre-trib rapture, of course), that’s the equivalent of John saying, “hey I know you’re suffering now, but your great hope is that one day there will be a lot more suffering, and you won’t have to be around for that!” That’s exactly what the message of the pre-trib premil crowd boils down to for us today as well – its only when you actually write it out in its boiled down essence that it begins to sounds illogical.

However, others like Tom Schreiner, William Hedriksen, Voddie Baucham and G.K. Beale (to name a few) see the book as a series of angles looking at the same scene – the time between Christ’s first advent and second advent. This is called “recapitulation”, and can be broken up in a number of ways, generally showing the same scenes in ever increasing drama. They see the bowls, seals, and trumpet judgments as simply different ways to describe the tribulation on earth between Christ’s coming again.

Baucham’s rough outline[iii] is derived from Derek Thomas and goes something like this: 

  1. 1-3 – the introduction, letters to 7 churches
  2. 4-5 – the throne room, the sovereignty of God proclaimed
  3. 6-7 – the seals – judgments which represents issues common to every age
  4. 8-11 – the unfolding trumpets, final which sounds the coming of Christ. These run parallel to the seals judgments.
  5. 12-14 – the scene changes completely and doesn’t flow with continuity from previous chapters. The story is told again from a new vantage point. God is victorious over his enemies.
  6. 15-16 – the Bowl Judgments, Babylon is destroyed (was destroyed in Ch. 14, this retells it from new angle)
  7. 17-19 – The destruction of Babylon the beast and false prophet
  8. 20-22 – God deals with the dragon, new heavens and new earth and eternal fellowship with God enjoyed.

One thing that I’d like to note is that Hendriksen combines sections 2 and 3 and says that chapters 4-7 form one unit. I don’t think one needs to necessarily hold to one or the other very tightly. Baucham, for instance, also posted Hendriksen’s view and outline on his own church website, so I think they pretty much agree on the divisions here for the most part. I appreciate that where there are disagreements on the divisions they aren’t disagreements as to the approach of the book as a series of visions or perspectives, but rather they are disagreements about when one vision ends or how we ought to categorize these visions. This is something we’ll look at closely as we go along in our study because the text will present us with forks in the road that we’ll need to address.

Under the recapitulation view, the tribulation encompasses the entire time between the first and second advent of Christ. Whereas the premillennial view (either one) views these great tribulations as happening during a compressed period of time – 7 literal years – prior to Christ’s 2nd advent, and therefore label this as one long event with the proper name ‘The Tribulation’.

It seems that in order to study the book in a cohesive way one must at least take a viewpoint on how these things should be understood/viewed, otherwise it would be very difficult to understand the big picture of this book.

I will be teaching from the recapitulation perspective that the tribulation passages are meant to describe the trials Christians (and others) will endure between the advents of Christ, thus taking the 7 years to mean the fullness of this interadvental time, and not a future 7 year period of time.

This also means that the judgment scenes and some of the heavenly throne scenes (for example), as giving us different perspectives, or camera angles, on the events that will take place between the advents of our Lord. Each section is not comprehensive of every event of this age – some focus on one thing to the exclusion of another, though the parallels remain constant. Hendricksen also notes that as we get toward the end of the book the judgment scenes continually increase in intensity. So this is the view I think it makes the most sense, and offers the clearest explanation of what we’re looking at, and the way we’ll be moving forward in our study of the book.

Now, some more info on the recapitulation perspective…One thing to note, and that is that Hendriksen’s chapter divisions (mentioned above) are not precise. Beale actually does a little better job showing the nuances in the recapitulation in his work (note especially page 131 of his commentary if you’re interested in checking that out in detail), and he seems to think that a man named Farrer has the most cogent breakdown – this is a bit more precise than the Henriksen one: 1-3, 4-7, 8:1-11:14, 11:15-14:20, 15-18, 19-22.[iv]

It should also be noted that 1. Within these sections there are subsections and sub-points that the author makes, and that 2. There are wider ways to classify the book as a whole (as I did just a bit earlier).

There are MANY nuances to these breakdowns, but the general 7-8 recapitulation divisions seems to hold pretty true across spectrum of theologians of this mindset who are not strict futurists.

The next thing to know about the recapitulation perspective is that it is found in much of the OT prophetic literature from which Revelation draws much of its imagery (much of which is in chiastic form).[v] Daniel, Beale points out, has a structure of “five synonymously parallel visions (chps. 2, 7, 8, 9, 10-12)” and “may be the most influential on the structure of Revelation, since Daniel is used so much in the book and is used to signal the broad structural divisions of the Apocalypse.”

Later in his writing Beale puts numbers to ideas (mostly based on the influence of Daniel, which I mentioned earlier): 1:1-18; 1:19-3:22; 4:1-22:5; 22:6-21. This is a broader structure which can be broken down further, but the point is that 4-22:5 really form an overarching idea – not that they are in the future, but that these visions of judgment and destruction are sequential and similar in form and also “bracketed by the overarching vision of God the Creator and Redeemer.”[vi]

Beale leans on the obvious Daniel allusions and the natural literary breakdown of the book, and has himself settled on a recapitulation view:

If it can be concluded that these Daniel 2 allusions are intentional and draw with them the contextual idea of Daniel 2, then there is a basis for proposing that this provides a significant framework of thought for the whole Apocalypse, that is, end-time judgment of cosmic evil and consequent establishment of the eternal kingdom. As has been seen, this is an inaugurated latter-day thought pervading the visions as well as the letters, which means that the visions should not be understood in an exclusively futuristic manner, but as also including significant sections pertaining to the eschatological past and present. This conclusion is most compatible with a recapitulation view, according to which repeated sections that concern past, present, and future occur throughout the book.[vii]

And, on a more advanced note…if you want to study even further, Beale notes that he and others definitely see the possibility for some chiastic structure in the literary makeup of Revelation. At the center of the structure seems to be 11:19-14:20. Also interestingly, each of the judgment scenes, whether it’s the seals, the trumpets, the bowls or the final judgment of the world (19:11-21:8) there are always three components: prelude, vision, and interlude. These three things repeat over and over again.

Chapter One

Chapter one finds us with John the Apostle on the island of Patmos, in exile “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (vs.9). He opens his letter explaining where his message comes from its in this prologue where we’ll begin our verse by verse exposition.

The first three verses have been called the “prologue” and the “introduction” and Beale says that they indicated that “the apocalypse was revealed for the purpose of witness, which results in blessing” and that “The main emphasis here is the blessing obtained from reading the book and hearing it read.”[viii]

1:1-2 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, [2] who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Here we see the transmission of the message that we’ll be studying. First and foremost it is called “the revelation” of Jesus Christ. This is Jesus’ message, not the invention of John or any other man. Secondly, it is given him by God – presumably the Father and head of the Trinitarian Godhead. Thirdly it is sent via “his angel” and this angel could be the messenger we read about later and this angel communicates it to John. It seems to be a four-step process of communication.

Now there are some significant things to note about the words John uses here in the opening graph of his letter.

First, and most obvious, this word “revelation” or “apocalypse” gets at the heart of the book, and that’s likely why the church has called this John’s Apocalypse from pretty much the beginning of the church onward. “Apocalypse” means to lay bare, it is a disclosure of the truth and a revealing of things previously unknown.[ix]

Another set of important words are those which say “He sent and communicated it (NASB)” or as in the ESV, “He made it known by sending.” The three words “and communicated it” are just one in the Greek sēmainō (pronounced say-my-no) which means “signified” or “to give a sign” or “to indicate.” This original meaning of the word carries with it prophetic/apocalyptic overtones and perhaps signals to us the kind of communication we’ll be getting here.

Apart from the words themselves, Beale sees real importance in the structure of John’s opening. Namely, it looks a whole lot like Daniel’s introduction of the revelation he was given by God to communicate to King Nebuchadnezzar in the second chapter of Daniel. A portion of that passage goes like this:

Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, [28] but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these: [29] To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be. [30] But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind. (Daniel 2:27-30)

Daniel then goes on to describe the great image of a god/idol that is separated into several kinds of metal and representative of different kingdoms of man.

The most important part is that verse 28 I think. You see how se says, “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” and “he had made known”, and it is these phrases that lead scholars like Beale to see clear allusions to Daniel’s literary structure in Revelation 1:1-3 (and other parts as well).

This allusion to Daniel is important because it reveals John’s thought process about how what he has seen fits into the fulfillment timeframe of Daniel. John is trying to tell us that he is picking up where Daniel left off – this revelation is about disclosing in more detail something that formerly had been predicted, but now more details are here for us to understand.

I’m noting this now because we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes here and try to understand John’s own understanding of the context of what he saw. His literary/prophetic context was the OT prophecies. So when he is using phrasing like Daniel, it is likely because he’s saying “I’m picking up where Daniel left off.”

This helps us understand several things. For example, John says that, “God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” and then says in verse three, “for the time is near.” Understanding John’s own perspective helps us understand what he means by this, and Beale has a great insight into this that is worth quoting in full:

Rev. 1:1 especially should be seen as introducing the main idea of the book, and it is, indeed, understood by many as the title of the whole work. Therefore, if John understands this Danielic allusion in 1:1 in the light of the eschatological context of Daniel 2, then he may be asserting that he conceives of what follows in his book ultimately within the thematic framework of Daniel 2 (and probably its parallel apocalyptic chapters) or at least as closely linked to that framework. The focus of “quickness” and “nearness” in vv 1-3 is primarily on inauguration of prophetic fulfillment and its ongoing aspect, not on nearness of consummated fulfillment, though the latter is secondarily in mind as leading from the former.

Indeed, what follows shows that the beginning of fulfillment and not final fulfillment is the focus. The references to the imminent eschatological period (v 3b), the fact of Christ’s present kingship over the worlds kings (v 5), the initial form of the saints’ kingdom (vv 6, 9), and the following “Son of man” reference (1:7) and vision (vv 13-15), also indicating initial fulfillment of Daniel 7, point strongly to this focus and to the presence of a Danielic frame of reference [x]

This is important for us to understand and really digest. John is saying that these things are upon him – they are not something that will happen in the distant future.

1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

I love verse three because it is so very John-like. John has told us that beholding the Word incarnate changed the lives of the disciples. He has told us that when we see Him in the flesh one day, we will be like Him. The reason John gives for this is that “we will see Him as He is.” John Piper and Jonathan Edwards seem to think this has to do with our soul seeing His soul, that somehow we will grasp all of who He is spiritually and that will bring us into total understanding and conformity to who we ought to be (who we were made to be!).

A similar sentiment is uttered here. John says that those who read the words of this book will be blessed and also those who hear it. Surely this is true of all the saints for all time. For every Christian you find that reads the Word of God, you will also find a Christian who is or has been blessed by that reading. It is the Word that changes us (Hebrews 4 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 attest to this) and that change is a blessing from God. To be changed into the image of God is the greatest blessing one can comprehend. God changing our minds and hearts and bringing us into an understanding of who He is, and who we are, and what He wants with us – can you imagine a greater privilege or blessing?

And of course, as we mentioned earlier, the verse ends with the phrase “the time is near.” This indicates that these sayings, these warnings, these truths are upon the apostle. He believes that they are near, they are soon, they are going to be relevant in the very immediate future or present. Of course our minds automatically go to the conclusion that whatever we read next (the rest of the book) must have a great amount of finality, or consummation. But I think there is no great call for holding onto that supposition. John is not saying that the time is “near” for the fulfillment of all things, rather the time is near that we will be seeing and experiencing all the things that are in this book that he’s writing. This makes the book eminently relevant to the early church that he’s writing to, as well as to us today.

Conclusion to the Prologue

The thing that stood out to me most in this prelude to the book of Revelation is the fact that God reveals Himself progressively. He is truly the Lord of history. Abraham didn’t know who would come from his lineage to fulfill the promises God had given him. David didn’t realize that the everlasting kingdom God gave him would be fulfilled in God’s own Son. Noah didn’t realize that his ark symbolized the fortress of freedom that God would one day embody in the personage of Jesus who alone is our raft to safety from the shoals of sin and death. Nor did Daniel know that the eternal kingdom and the Son of man whom he foresaw would be ushered in by a King who would rule all kings, a Lord that would reign over all lords, an eternal God inaugurating an eternal kingdom.

In Revelation we are given a glimpse into the trials and tribulations that we’ll face in this world. We see their nature, their genesis, and the pain they will bring the saints of God. We see the cost of following Jesus. But we also see the triumph of the Lamb and the amazing power He wrought on that dead tree 2,000 years ago. We see that when He triumphed over the grave, He arose and took up His rightful place at the Father’s right hand. The consequences of this for us are simply amazing. This book recounts not only the reality of our trials here on earth, but of the blessings we have in the triumph of Jesus, the Firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8).

Footnotes 

[i] Johnson, pg. 26

[ii] From his commentary (Volume I) on the Book of Revelation, pg. 11.

[iii] From Voddie Baucham sermon May 27, 2012, www.gracefamilybaptist.net. Sometimes you will find that an associate pastor preaches here in his stead, but both hold the same perspective.

[iv] Beale, Pg. 112.

[v] Beale, Pg. 135.

[vi] Beale, Pg. 140.

[vii] Beale, Pg. 141.

[viii] Beale, Pg. 145.

[ix] See the blue letter bible online and the Strong’s concordance: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G602&t=NASB

 

[x] Beale, Pg. 182.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

Often it is very easy to get caught up in viewpoints about the millennium, and I do not want to detract from the importance of the millennium. For even though the millennium – the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in the first few verses of chapter 20 – takes up a very short space in terms of the book itself, its importance is seen in how we interpret what its saying.

But before we discuss these things specifically, I believe we need to begin our study of this book by briefly examining the nature of the kingdom of God. For when we speak of the “millennium” we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and specifically the reign of His Christ.

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), although the nature of this reign is intensely debated, and scholars differ on whether it refers to the reign of saints in the heaven during the time between the resurrection and the return of Christ or to a reign of the saints on earth before the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.”[ix]

We can see the importance of this idea of the reign of Christ in how it manages to seep into how pastors and theologians comprehend the overarching theme(s) of this book. For instance, Warren Wiersebe, a Premillennialist, says, “The overriding theme of the book of Revelation is the return of Jesus Christ to defeat all evil and to establish His reign.”   Note how he uses the word “establish” in lieu of the word “consummate” which is the term an amillennialist would use because of the emphasis on Christ’s current reign.

The amillennialist would remind us of verses like we find at the end of Mark’s gospel, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19 – also see Ephesians 1:20-23)[i]

Now, most theologians believe that Christ is reigning now, but what is the nature of that reign? I think the difference lies in whether or not one believes that His current reign is somewhat lesser or mostly spiritual (i.e. in the hearts of his people).

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

So God rules spiritually now over the hearts of those who know Him by faith. And that’s been the case since His saving work began. There is a spiritual element of the Kingdom that has existed since God started redeeming men. But this is not that spiritual Kingdom of which we read here, but rather that earthly literal Kingdom which comes at the culmination of human history.[ii]

However, I think that this emphasis on the future nature of Christ’s kingdom does injustice to His victory at Calvary, and does not fully comprehend the fullness of Christ’s current reign.

You can now see the rub, can you not? How we think about the kingdom of God shapes how we view the book of Revelation, and perhaps the millennium question in particular.

The Already/Not Yet

I believe the critical hermeneutical principle which will help us most is called the “already/not yet” principle. In order to understand most of the NT – especially the words of Jesus and the book of Revelation – we need to understand this important principle.

For our purposes, I believe that we need to get our heads around two truths about the nature of God’s kingdom. The first is that it has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and will be consummated upon his return. The second is that God is working dynamically in history to bring about the expansion of His kingdom and its final consummation.

Regarding the first truth, it is worth quoting R.C. Sproul at this point at length:

Many professing evangelicals today believe the kingdom of God is strictly in the future, although there is no biblical foundation for that. This view robs the church of important teachings concerning the kingdom that are clearly set forth in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist’s announcement of the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Another time the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus replied, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom was in their midst became (sic – because) the King was there. In another occasion, He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

So John came first with his warning of the radical nearness of the kingdom. Then Jesus came announcing the presence of the kingdom. This was followed by the acme of His redemptive work in the ascension, when He left earth to go to His coronation, where God declared Him King. As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, read to depart, His disciples asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had been waiting for Jesus to make His move, to drive out the Romans and establish the kingdom, but Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[iii]

When Jesus returns it will not be to establish a kingdom, but rather to consummate a kingdom which has been established from before the foundation of the world, and which He reigns over at this very moment.

Indeed the book of Revelation, as we mentioned earlier, was written to assure Christians that He is in control over all things – He is the Lord of history.

Interestingly, Beale thinks that John wrote Revelation with the book of Daniel in mind – especially important in Daniel is the already/not yet function of his literature. Some things were occurring right away for Daniel during his time, while others he saw as distant and far away. Those things which Daniel saw as far away, John saw as fulfilled at least partially in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of his kingdom.

Beale puts it this way:

John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times predicted by Daniel, which will now continue throughout the church age.

Side note: for those more advanced in prophetic study or curious about these things, one of the things Beale and other see in Revelation is that at the beginning of some of the major sections/division there is a reference or allusion to something from Daniel chapter two (1:1, 4:1, and 22:6) Beale says that a pattern definitely emerges, “John is employing the same allusion as a literary device to give structure to his whole book.”

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

Douglass Kelly says, “The exercise of this heavenly authority over all lesser powers is the main thing that is happening in this age between the two comings of the Lord; which, as we shall seek to demonstrate, is the prime meaning of the millennium. The millennium is not a literal period of only one thousand years that will occur much later; rather it is that period of victorious outreach of the Gospel to the nations: a time that last from Jesus’ first coming to his last.”[iv]

All of this can be comprehended by identifying how the Bible speaks about the kingdom of God and the reign of His Christ in other places, and how we are to understand this in light of what we read in chapter 20. Is Jesus’ reign something future, or is it now and to be seen with our eyes in the future? How should we think of, and describe his reign?

This is what R.C. Sproul was speaking of earlier when he said that Christ’s kingdom was “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated.” There are some promises, and some realities that are presently being realized in the church age, yet will not come to their full glory until Christ returns. Our very salvation is like this, for we are saved NOW, yet we have not yet fully realized that salvation. We have the down payment of this reality in the giving of the Spirit, yet not the consummation of this reality in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

The second principle is tied to the first, and it is this: The kingdom of God is “dynamic.” That is to say it is more than just this idea of God separately reigning in heaven, He is working out His will in and amongst us in time and space. He is ruling here – He is involved in our lives – His rule is not detached.

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.

Then Frame says, “On this definition, the kingdom is dynamic, indeed dramatic. It is a world-historical movement, following the fall of Adam, in which God works to defeat Satan and bring human beings to acknowledge Christ as Lord. It is, preeminently, the history of salvation.”[v]

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[vi]

He goes on to say, “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[vii]

Now given what we know of these two principles, we know that God is both reigning supreme over all, but also dynamically working in and through His creation to bring about His purposes. This points to the linear nature of history – God is working toward something.[viii] What He is doing now in and through us by His Spirit and His Lordship over all history and creation is a shadow of what will be upon the consummation of His purposes.

Christ inaugurated a kingdom (the already) and with that inauguration has brought forth fruit first by His cross work, and now by His Spirit’s powerful work here on earth through the spread of the gospel. One day He will return to consummate His kingdom (the not yet) and upon that return will usher in the visible reality of his reign (the already).

While futurists await a future “literal earthly” kingdom (which we all look for), the way in which we speak about and think about God’s exercise of power and authority over the world, and the souls of lost people is important. I believe its crucial that we understand God as working even now dynamically, personally, powerfully in history and in the lives of men all across the globe to expand his kingdom – a real kingdom of real people.

So you can see how these perspectives function to shape our viewpoint of the book itself and the millennium. But they also shape how we live our lives as Christians – especially what kind of mindset we take toward events here on earth and circumstances in our personal lives.

NOTE: Some of the dispensationalists might argue that God rules “spiritually in the hearts” of men, but not physically here on earth, and does not rule them in any way other than in their hearts. To me this is a false dilemma. The postmillennialist has it right in the respect that when God saves a man, there is fruit and evidence of change not only in that man’s heart, but in his life and in the society in which he lives. To argue a distant futurist reign of Christ is to argue the opposite of how the Bible describes the efficacy of Christ’s work on the cross. He truly is Lord of all and he exercises that Lordship full now, though it is unseen (as Sproul mentions above). I’m not saying that the Postmillennial view is perfect, but their mindset on the nature of the kingdom certainly seems to make more sense and align more Biblically to me.

The Millennium

With this cursory understanding of the kingdom of God under our belts, let us examine the four major views on the reign of Christ in the millennium.

Amillennialism

The Amillennial view (Amil) is probably the simplest of the four major viewpoints on the millennial question.

Wayne Grudem says, “Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven…This view is called ‘Amillennialism’ because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.”[x]

John Frame describes it:

The Amil believe that the millennium is now, the whole period from Jesus’ ascension to his return. He emphasizes that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus ushered in a new era of world history. Jesus has now achieved a great victory over Satan, sin, and death…The Amil says that Satan no longer deceives the nations (20:3) as he did before the coming of Christ. Before Jesus came, believers in the truth God existed mainly in Israel. The other nations were deceived by Satan into worship idols. But after the resurrection, the Christian church received power to reach people of all nations with the message of the gospel. And God will continue to empower this mission until the last day, until there are believers from every kingdom, tongue, tribe and nation.[xi]

R.C. Sproul adds…

The Amillennial position, which holds some points in common with both of the premillennial positions, believes that the church age is the kingdom age prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament church has become the Israel of God. Amillennialists believe that the binding of Satan took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry; Satan was restrained while the gospel was preached to the world, and this restraint continues today.[xii]

The verses that come to my mind as typically cited in terms of the defeat of Satan are as follows:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

Amils affirm that toward the end of this era Satan will be released briefly, as Revelation 20:3 indicates (also verses 7-8). He will then deceive the nations again, presumably achieving some measure of his old power. But he will be frustrated and defeated by the return of Christ and the judgment that will result in his final destruction.[xiii]

Amils believe that the first resurrection is simply that spiritual resurrection that has taken place and realized during the intermediate state. The second resurrection is the physical resurrection of the body preceding the judgment when Christ returns. Frame says, “Similarly, the first death is the physical death of human being; the second death is the condemnation of the wicked, a death that believers do not experience.”[xiv]

Postmillennialism 

Most folks who are of the post-mil persuasion also believe that the millennium period of 1,000 years is NOW just like the Amils believe. John Frame notes that some older literature reveals that there are a few Post-mills who have said that is a part of this time now, but more will reside in the future. Post-mills also agree with Amils on the binding of Satan during Christ’s ministry and his release for a short time before Jesus’ return.

John Frame describes the difference between Amils and Post-mills:

Well, although the postmil agrees with the amil that our age is a time of persecution for the church, he also thinks that during this time Christians will come to have more and more influence in general culture. Believers will indeed gain wealth, influence, and even dominance.[xv]

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

What distinguishes postmillennialists from amillennialists and premillennialists is the belief that Scripture teaches the success of the Great Commission in the age of the church.[xvi]

Grudem says, “ The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world.”

I must admit that when I study the history of the world since the spread of the gospel, I do not see a uniform trajectory upward toward a world of people who are united in morals and standards. Certainly I believe that since Christ the world has been changed in huge part by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the world was in darkness before He came – so much so that every other nation worshiped idols except Israel. Can you imagine if we looked around the world today and every other nation except one the size of Rhode Island worshiped wooden blocks and golden statues? So certainly the gospel has transformed our world.

However, the post-millennial viewpoint was really made popular and caught on prior to the 20th century. It was perhaps at its height at the end of the 19th century when medical cures were being found, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and great revivals had swept across the world many times over the course of the past several hundred years. Then came World War I. The gruesome bloodshed and seemingly worthless outcome was more than conservative theologians could swallow in their assessments of world events and the human situation on earth.

However, not all theologians and pastors had to wait until the bloody events of the 20th century to object to Postmillennialism’s optimistic theology. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote hinting about this way of thinking:

Let us dismiss from our minds the vain idea that nations will ever give up wars entirely, before Jesus Christ comes again. So long as the devil is the prince of this world, and the hearts of the many are unconverted, so long there must be strife and fighting. There will be no universal peace before the second advent of the Prince of peace. Then, and then only, men shall “learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Let us cease to expect that missionaries and ministers will ever convert the world, and teach all mankind to love one another. They will do nothing of the kind. They were never intended to do it. They will call out a witnessing people who shall serve Christ in every land, but they will do no more. The bulk of mankind will always refuse to obey the Gospel. The nations will always go on quarreling, wrangling, and fighting. The last days of the earth shall be its worst days. The last war shall be the most fearful and terrible war that ever desolated the earth.[xvii]

The theology fell out of style, yet there are some very smart theologians whom I respect who still hold this theology today. John Frame[xviii] and Keith Mathison both consider themselves Post-Millennial.

I say all that because, while I do not consider myself Postmillennial, I really respect those who take that view, and their arguments are generally very scriptural. They point to many times, both in Scripture and in the time since Christ, when Christian influence has changed the world for the good. They remind us that when Jesus changes someone’s head and heart, those changes lead to changes in our actions which affect the society in which we live.

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ligonier has a devotional published about the kingdom of God which cites these verses in Ephesians: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/seated-at-gods-right-hand/

[ii] John MacArthur sermon on Revelation 20 (Part 1): http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/66-73

[iii] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

[v] John M. Frame, ‘Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief’, Pg. 87

[vi] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45

[vii] Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’, Pg. 51

[viii] For more on the linear nature of history, see Anthony Hoekema’s ‘Created in God’s Image’

[ix] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 846-847.

[x] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1110.

[xi] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1087-1088

[xii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 313.

[xiii] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xiv] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xv] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088.

[xvi] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[xvii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 21:10-19. Here Ryle is discussing the Olivet Discourse and particularly, “Christ’s predictions concerning the nations and the world.” That this important, and sound, theologian and pastor would raise such a warning flag against the post-mil mindset while its popularity was at its zenith is (to me) a very important note.

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094

Introduction to Revelation: Part 3

Welcome to part three of my introduction to Revelation.  On Sunday morning we covered the nature of symbolism in Revelation as well as the four main overarching viewpoints of the book. I hope you enjoy this post!

PJW

Symbolism in Revelation

It has occurred to me after studying many of the viewpoints of the pre-trib rapture folks that understanding proper hermeneutics is really fundamental to understanding Revelation. Of course, I’ve mention his before in this study and also in other books I’ve taught through. But I think that when it comes to Revelation, getting the symbols right is important – in fact, just understanding that symbols are, well, symbolic is important!

I bring up the pre-trip rapture folks because as I read through the work of one such seminary professor’s work this evening, I began to really be impressed with his knowledge of Scripture, and his desire to bring Scripture to bear in the forming of his opinions. As I read through his Scripture references, I began to see where he was coming from, but it didn’t make complete sense until I read that, in his view, Revelation 4-18 contained no mention of the church. Of course this is a major point in the pre-trib rapture argument. These folks believe that the church must have been raptured prior to chapter 4. Furthermore, they assume the book works chronologically, and not simply a series of visions describing the inter-advental period.

Now, I disagree with their chronological assumption, and I will address that later. But let me just hone in on this major issue of not seeing the church mentioned anywhere between chapters 4 and 19. This particular professor held a similar belief of many pre-trib folks who say that the “elect” and “Israel” are mentioned, but not the church. Of course, just a simple understanding of the meaning of “the elect” tells us that he doesn’t understand that the elect ARE the church. But again, we will set aside this equally stupefying misunderstanding and just realize that these people come to the conclusion that “the church” is not mentioned in these chapters because they are not reading the book symbolically.

I spent all that time laying that example out so you can see that hermeneutics have consequences. If we ignore the obvious symbolic nature of Revelation and instead choose to take every image we possibly can as literal, then we will never understand this great book.

The question is really not whether we should interpret the book symbolically, but rather how do we go about understanding the symbols? I have given Johnson’s 7 ways to “see” Revelation above, and now I want to just overlay that with some thoughts from Hendriksen who has just 3 different things for us to consider:[i]

1. There is a need to concentrate on the central theme

 

Just like in Jesus’ parables, each symbol usually has just one main theme or message its trying to convey. You might find other truths associated with the symbols, but that doesn’t take away from the one or two driving principle thoughts/themes.

2. There is a need to distinguish between the principle and the detail

 

Hendriksen puts it this way:

 

One must not begin to press the details. One must not ask, in the symbol of the locusts that came out of the abyss (9:1-11), what is the separate meaning of their hair, teeth, breast-plates, etc.” We must not pluck the symbol apart and lose the unity. These details belong to the picture, just as the mule, wine, oil, etc. belong to the parable of the Good Samaritan. One should ask, first, what is the picture taken as a whole? Second, what is the one central meaning of this picture?

 

As a rule the details belong to the picture, to the symbol. We must not try to give a ‘deeper’ interpretation to the details, unless the interpretation of these details is necessary in order to bring out the full meaning of the central idea of the symbol. Thus, in the symbol of the new Jerusalem (chapters 21, 22), the central idea is perfect fellowship with God. The details – wall, foundations, gates, river etc. – describe the glorious character of this fellowship. What we are after is the total impression, the central idea, of each complete symbol. As in the parables, so here, the context helps to explain the meaning of the picture, and a thorough study of all the details is also necessary in order to determine what is the central thought.

 

  1. Learning what the symbols mean

 

Hendriksen says that there are really two kinds of symbols. The first are those “symbols which describe the beginning or the end of the course of the new dispensation…for example, the radiant woman who is delivered of a Son, a Man-child, refers to the Church bringing forth the Christ, His human nature (12:1-5)” or “…the twofold harvest (14:15) refers to the final judgment, to that one great event.” These are big events at the beginning of the first advent or the end of the age etc.

 

The second type of symbol is that which fills the majority of the book and could be people, tribulations, place etc. happening in time between the first and second advent of Christ. These symbols are such as the lamp stands, the bowls, the trumpets, seals etc. The question is, do these symbols represent particular people or specific events – single happenings – in history or in the future? Hendriksen, Baucham and many others say “no”, and I agree with them. This probably puts them (and me) in some sort of fashion under the “idealist” view of the book – which we will discuss momentarily!

 

The reason for these symbols not representing specific one-time events or people in most cases is evident for numerous reasons. First if they did, how would we ever know which events or people in history? Everyone would have their own “interpretation”! Who would be the final judge? We’d have to give up and say that this book isn’t able to be interpreted. But we don’t do that because we believe that this book was indeed given to “reveal” to us God’s purpose, and to edify the church.

 

Furthermore, these symbols operate in a sphere (to paraphrase Hendriksen) that is very extensive. Large swaths of the earth are involved in the descriptions of the effects of these seals, bowls, trumpets and so forth. “This could hardly be true if each seal, trumpet or bowl had reference to just one single event in history, an event that takes place at a certain specific date in a definite locality…again, these symbols affect not just one very limited group of people, but a multitude that cannot be counted.”

 

Hendriksen also points out that most of the symbols operate in groups of seven – not a coincidence I think. “This number seven indicates completeness. It harmonizes very well with the idea that the symbols refer to principles in human conduct and of divine government that are always operative, especially throughout this entire dispensation.”

 

Hendriksen sums up the viewpoint I take on most of these symbols:

 

Yet we do not believe that this is a closed book. We fully believe that it is a revelation, an unveiling. So we must look for some other rule of interpretation (other than that of specific symbols representing specific one-time events or people).

…It is on the basis of the symbols themselves, as described in the Apocalypse, that we arrive at this very significant conclusion, namely, that the seals, trumpets, bowls, and similar pictures, refer not to specific events or details of history, but to principles that are operating throughout the history of the world, especially throughout the new dispensation.

 

And…

 

We should constantly bear in mind that the purpose of God and of the seer is to make men wise unto salvation. The book has an ethical and spiritual purpose. For if these symbols merely indicate and predict isolated, future events, it may satisfy some people’s curiosity, but it can hardly be said that people, in general, are edified. On the other hand, if we believe that the book reveals the principles of divine moral government which are constantly operating, so that, whatever age we happen to live in, we can see God’s hand in history, and His mighty arm protecting us and giving us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, then, and only then, are we edified and comforted.

 

 

Which leads us to our next topic…

 

But first… a NOTE: As I personally work through the book of Revelation, I will be leaning heavily on those who have closely examined the symbolic nature of the book. While Hendriksen provides a wonderful layman’s outline of how to think of these symbols in broad terms of interpretation, Beale agrees with these and adds another level of study. Beale’s work is very thorough and while he agrees with Hendriksen on OT background, and immediate context, he also explains in-depth the way to both discover when one is seeing a symbolic reference, as well as how and when to approach each symbol to a degree of study that others simply haven’t touched. Beale relies on Sweet, Caird and others as well as his own language and grammar expertise. Much of this is found throughout the commentary, but on pages 50-69 he spends time diving into the grammar and contextual matters involved in this book, and what grammatical/literary and logical rules we must apply when thinking through this book. I just mention this as an aside because for me to go through each of his points in my own notes and teaching would fall beyond the scope and patience level of most people, yet I want those who I’m teaching to understand where I’m deriving my frame of reference for these grammar and literary rules. Indeed I want to assure those in my care that such careful consideration has been taken in these points so that my teaching might be clear, yet without subjecting those reading and listening the tediousness of combing through grammar and literary matters on a Sunday morning.

The Overarching Viewpoints

In the approach to this book there have been several perspectives. There are mainly four overarching perspectives with several modified versions of each. The main four are: Historist, Idealist, Futurist, and Preterist. Let me give a brief overview of each one.

 

Historist

 

The Historist view is very interesting. They see Revelation as dealing with the big events in Christian history from Christ’s ministry until this day. Beale describes this view:

 

The majority of these (Historist) commentators have understood the seals, trumpets, and bowls as unfolding successive events in history in general chronological order. Christ’s final coming is usually seen as very imminent. Typically this view identifies parts of the Apocalypse as prophecies of the invasions of the Christianized Roman Empire by the Goths and the Muslims. Further, the corruption of the medieval papacy, the reign of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, and the destruction wrought by Napoleon and Hitler have been seen as predicted by John.[ii]

 

Issues with this view include its exclusion of non-western church events as important to world history, and also there’s the problem that different people who’ve held this view at different points in history have not agreed with each other on the particulars of each major historical movement. Beale also points out that, “such a projection of future history would have had little relevance to the first-century readers of Revelation.”

 

Preterist

 

The Preterist view has two main iterations. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus’ armies in 70 A.D. figure prominently in both views. The first believes that the entire book of Revelation is really a prediction about the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (of course this necessitates an early dating to the book). These folks believe that “Babylon” represents Israel “who aids Rome in oppressing Christians.”[iii] Israel is therefore being judged, and their temple’s destruction is the climax of all the judgment prophecy in Revelation (not to mention Daniel 2 and 7). There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that Daniel 2 and 7 – which are integral to Revelation’s judgments – indicate a worldwide/universal judgment of nations, whereas Preterists see these judgments as exclusive to Israel.

 

The second main form of Preterism indicates that what Revelation talks about was fulfilled in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. but that “Babylon the Great” refers to Rome, and not to Israel. This makes a little more sense, but still encounters the difficulties mentioned above.

 

Now there is a view called “Partial Preterism”, which R.C. Sproul describes as follows:

 

Partial Preterism holds that many of the prophecies of the future were fulfilled in the first century – chiefly in the events surrounding the destructions of Jerusalem in AD 70. Most Partial Preterists say that the first twenty chapters of Revelation have taken place while the last two chapters have yet to be fulfilled. Partial Preterists tend to be postmillennial in their thinking, holding that the millennium (not a literal one thousand years) began with the first advent of Christ.[iv]

 

There are other forms of preterism which are really nothing more than heresy. One says that John prophesied worldwide destruction, but was mistaken. Another is similar to the first form I mentioned only goes so far as to say that Jesus came back in 70 A.D., judged Israel, and went back to heaven. In this view there will be no second coming of Christ, for He has already come.

 

John Frame wisely remarks, “It is also significant that the early church fathers of the generation following the apostles never speak of a return of Christ that occurred in A.D. 70. If this were the momentous event that preterists make it out to be, one would think that the fathers would have made that one of the main themes of their writings. But in fact, they never even mention it.”

 

Futurist

 

There are two forms of the Futurist viewpoint and (as Beale notes) both see John’s vision from Chapter 4 – 22:5 as referring to the future time that will come immediately prior to the end of history.

 

The dispensational version of Futurism is complicated, so I will quote Beale’s summary here as it is helpful:

 

…Dispensational Futurism , which interprets very literally and generally sees the order of the visions as representing the historical order of future events: (1) the restoration of ethnic Israel to its land (apparently beginning directly prior to the events depicted in 4:1-22:5), (2) the church’s rapture into heaven, (3) a seven-year tribulation, (4) the antichrist’s reign, (5) the assembly of evil nations to fight over Jerusalem, (6) Christ’s second coming, when he defeats the evil nations, (7) his millennial reign, (8) Satan’s final rebellion at the end of the millennium, which he gathers together unbelievers from throughout the world to fight against Christ and the saints, and (9) Christ’s eternal reign together with the saints in a new heaven and new earth. 1:19 is often seen as the outline of the book: “Therefore, write what you have seen” represents the past, which is described in ch. 1; “and what is” represents the present, which is described in chs. 2-3; “and what things are about to come to pass after these things” represents the future, which is described in 4:1-22:5.[v]

 

The second form of futurism doesn’t interpret events in the book as literally as the dispensationalists do, and it doesn’t “hold as strictly that the visions represent the chronological sequence of future history.” Beale says that, “In particular, this version can affirm that the church is true Israel and that there will be no ‘pretribulational rapture.’”[vi]

 

There are several issues with these views, we will deal with them as we get into the book, but Beale is right to state that, “The futurist position especially encounters the difficulty that the book would have had no significant relevance for a first-century readership.”

 

Idealist

 

The Idealist perspective sees Revelation as symbolic and portrays the general conflict between good and evil. There are some versions of this viewpoint which doesn’t see any real historical fulfillment in what John predicted, but rather see it as just lessons to be learned and a depiction of the overall battle between God and Satan.

 

Beale says, “The problem with this alternative is that it holds that Revelation does not depict any final consummation to history, whether in God’s final victory or in a last judgment of the realm of evil.”

 

That being said, Beale, Hendriksen, Johnson, and Baucham and others hold to a modified version of idealism. Beale calls his view “Eclecticism” and I really appreciate his viewpoint. He takes the best of idealism and the other views and tosses out those views which have obvious difficulties.

 

One of the things that we ought to benefit from as Christians living in the 21st century is that men and women have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. When one view becomes popular, but has holes/issues, then we ought to give it serious consideration and ask ourselves whether our assumptions are wrong. This is why I like Beale’s approach.

 

Because Beale is one of the most respected scholars on this book, we will be referring to his work a great deal, therefore it may be helpful to give you his own summary of the approach he advocates taking:

 

A more viable, modified version of the idealist perspective would acknowledge a final consummation in salvation and judgment. Perhaps it would be best to call this fifth view “eclecticism.” Accordingly, no specific prophesied historical events are discerned in the book, except for the final coming of Christ to deliver and judge and to establish he final form of the kingdom in a consummated new creation – though there are a few exceptions to this rule. The Apocalypse symbolically portrays events throughout history, which is understood to be under the sovereignty of the Lamb as a result of his death and resurrection. He will guide the events depicted until they finally issue in the last judgment and the definitive establishment of his kingdom. This means that specific events throughout the age extending from Christ’s first coming to his second may be identified with one narrative or symbol. We may call this age inaugurated by Christ’s first coming and concluded by his final appearance “the church age,” “the interadventual age.” Or “the latter days.” The majority of the symbols in the book are transtemporal in the sense that they are applicable to events throughout the “church age.”

Therefore, the Historicists may sometimes be right in their precise historical identifications, but wrong in limiting the identification only to one historical reality. The same verdict may be passed on the Preterist school of thought, especially the Roman version. And certainly there are prophecies of the future in Revelation. The crucial yet problematic task of the interpreter is to identify through careful exegesis and against the original historical background those texts which pertain respectively to past, present, and future.

 

FOOTNOTES… 

[i] Hendriksen, Pg.’s 37-43

[ii] Beale, Pg. 46.

[iii] Beale, Pg. 44

[iv] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[v] Beale, Pg. 47.

[vi] Beale, Pg. 47