Introduction to Revelation: Part 5

Today we looked at the classic premil and dispensational premil views of the millennium period spoken of in Revelation 20. I also spoke briefly about the nature of dispensationalism, and its hermeneutic. In my notes (below) I have given a slightly expanded voice to my concerns and why it matters to us today. I just can’t stress enough how important it is that we get our hermeneutics right, and I believe that when we do, our Bibles will lead us away from dispensational views of Revelation, and, well, anything…

Enjoy!

PreMillenialism – Historic

There are two kinds of Premils, the first is historic or “classical” and has been around since the early church fathers (ancients referred to this as chiliasm). The second is dispensational which came into being in the last 200 years. I’ll start with historic premillennialism.

Grudem says:

According to this viewpoint, the present church age will continue until, as it nears the end, a time of great tribulation and suffering comes on the earth. After that time of tribulation at the end of the church age, Christ will return to earth to establish a millennial kingdom….some premillennialists take this to be a literal one thousand years, and others understand it to be a symbolic expression for a long period of time. During this time, Christ will be physically present on earth in his resurrected body, and will reign as King over the entire earth.

John Frame sums up what happens next:

They (the early church fathers who were premil) taught that at the end of the present age, Jesus will come and raise believers to be with him. Then he will reign upon the earth for a thousand years, or some other long period of time. During this time (and not until then), Satan is bound in the bottomless pit. At the end of this time, God will release Satan, and at his instigation some on earth will rebel against Jesus (Revelation 20:3, 7-8). But the Lord will put down the revolt and raise all the dead for final judgment. Then comes the new heavens and new earth.

Therefore, according to this viewpoint, Christians will indeed endure a great time of persecution – they will not be raptured away from this tribulation prior to the Lord’s second coming.

Premillenialsim – Dispensational

The dispensational version of premil belief is “more recent (nineteenth century) and more complicated.”[i]

John Frame sets up the view for us:

The key to understanding the dispensational view is the idea that Jesus actually returns twice, making three times altogether that Jesus comes to earth. His first coming was, of course, his conception in the womb of Mary 2000 years ago. At his second coming, at the end of this age, he comes secretly and raptures believers to be with him. The rapture is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, where Paul says:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

This is what you read about or have seen in those Left Behind movies with Kirk Cameron (and now Nicholas Cage). As Wayne Grudem notes, “This return is thought to be a secret return of Christ to take believers out of the world.”[ii]

Then there will be a period of intense tribulation – dispensationalists call this the “Great Tribulation” – which will last 7 literal years. Some hold that the rapture of the church will occur mid-way through the tribulation and that the last 3.5 years of the tribulation (seen to be the worst years) will be avoided by the church.

After the literal 7-year tribulation period Christ will come again (for a third time), this time to usher in His kingdom here on earth.

Grudem says:

During this seven-year period of tribulation, many of the signs that were predicted to precede Christ’s return will be fulfilled. The great ingathering of the fullness of the Jewish people will occur, as they trust Christ as their messiah. In the midst of great suffering there will also be much effective evangelism, especially carried out by the new Jewish Christians. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will then come back with his saints to reign on the earth for 1,000 years. After this millennial period there will be a rebellion, resulting in the final defeat of Satan and his forces, and then will come the resurrection of unbelievers, the last judgment, and the beginning of the eternal state.[iii]

That is their system in a nutshell. But both Frame (leans postmil) and Grudem (a classic premil guy) wisely note that one of the things that makes this form of premil unique is the way they separate the Jews from the church, basically saying that these are two separate and distinct peoples with two separate and distinct futures. To me this is one of the most unbiblical features of the dispensational system.

Grudem additionally notes that, “Another characteristic of pretribulational premillenialism is its insistence on interpreting biblical prophecies ‘literally where possible.’ This especially applies to prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Israel. Those who hold this view argue that those prophecies of God’s future blessing to Israel will yet be fulfilled among the Jewish people themselves; they are not to be ‘spiritualized by finding their fulfillment in the church.’”[iv]

Issues with the Dispensational View

I believe each view has strengths and weaknesses. However, I admit openly that I loathe the dispensational view (not those who believe it, but the view itself) for its absolutely wacky and misleading hermeneutic. I single it out because it’s the most popularized view of the church today, and many in the church don’t know of the alternatives.

The two main distinctives of this view are its futurist bent (i.e. with regard to the millennium and the tribulation period), and its separation between the future destinies of Jews and the Church respectively.

Much of these issues stem from their “literal” hermeneutic. To ignore context, symbolism, figures of speech, allegory, and word pictures is to throw out common sense and discard sensus literalis to the dustbin.

As it concerns the “spiritualizing” of the promises to Israel and those promises being fulfilled (at least partially) in the church. It’s important to realize that our framework for understanding the role of the church with regard to its fulfillment of OT promises is given to us by the Apostle Paul who not only called Christ “Israel” but also called the church the “true Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16) and said that the church – the elect – were Abraham’s offspring In Romans 4 and Romans 9 Paul says that it’s the elect by the promise of God who are Abraham’s offspring). This same apostle also maintained that the Jews would eventually be grafted back in to the church (Romans 11). He used the comparison to a wild olive tree. He never spoke of two trees, only one with the two different branches. Additionally, the Bible doesn’t speak of two brides of Christ, only one – the church. Are we to think that the church is Christ’s bride and that the Jews are, well, just another group hanging around on the outside of the eternal marriage?

There are further consequences – major consequences – not the least of which is a complete misunderstanding of Jeremiah 31:31 and subsequent (and necessary) disregard for Hebrews 8. If this passage only applies to Israel in the future, then the new covenant hasn’t been ushered in, and we aren’t a part of it. You can see how important it is to get the hermeneutic right when we read our Bibles. I will address this momentarily.

Under the dispensational hermeneutic the future will also look, well, very odd. There will be rebellion after Christ has physically reigned on earth for 1,000 years – which means there will still be sin even though Christ will be here on earth – so apparently we’ll have to wait awhile for that problem to be solved. Also, if there’s sin in the millennium, why not death? Sin leads to physical decay and death, so how is this to be dealt with?

Needless to say there are issues with every viewpoint – because we can’t perfectly understand the future and what God has for His people. That’s why He’s God and we’re not! I don’t believe we’re meant to know every detail of the future and how things will exactly play out.

Why this Matters to Us Today 

I mentioned Jeremiah 31:31 above because I believe that dispensationalists inadvertently undervalue the new covenant and the victory Christ achieved on the cross. Again, I don’t think this is their aim, but it’s the consequence of their hermeneutic. This actually really matters to us today because this view of the Bible has consequences for how we view our own salvation, and previous promises that we claim to be ours right now.

In recent years some within their camp have realized there are issues with creating such a dichotomy between the church and Israel. This is why some now call themselves ‘Progressive Dispensationalists’ because they are starting to see that many of these promises made with the “House of Israel” in the OT are actually being fulfilled in the church – chief among them is the promise of a New Covenant. In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we read of a prophecy concerning the new covenant[v] that I’m sure many of you have read or heard before. Listen to the words of Jeremiah, made with the “House of Israel” but now being fulfilled in His church:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Why am I bringing this up now in the context of our study on Revelation? Because how we view the Bible in Jeremiah (and other books) has an affect on how we view and read Revelation. Having a literalistic hermeneutic not only ruins Revelation, it stultifies and obscures other vital prophetic passages, and the Jeremiah passage is just a great example of this. I said earlier that “hermeneutics matter”, this is just one example of why that is so, and why I want to caution anyone who holds to a dispensational view of this book.

 

Footnotes 

[i] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1089

[ii] Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg.’s 1112-1113

[iii] Grudem, Pg. 1115

[iv] Grudem, Pg. 1116

[v] Bruce Ware is in this camp and in his Systematic Theology I lectures at SBTS he gives the Jeremiah 31:31-34 passage as one of the glaring passages which simply can’t be gotten around.

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

Revelation: An Introduction Part 2

This morning I taught the second part of our intro to Revelation.  This is part two, of what will likely be a 4-6 part introduction.  I hope you enjoy!

 The Importance of Hermeneutics (continued from last week)

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[i]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[ii]

Johnson says there are 7 “strategies for seeing”[iii] the book of Revelation correctly. From those 7 I have listed my favorite quotes and points below because I have found his outline very helpful:

  1. Revelation is given to reveal. It makes its central message so clear that even those who hear it can take it to heart and receive the blessings it promises.

Johnson also says, “Our starting point should be confidence that God has given this book not to confuse, terrify, or divide his people but to give us light, to reveal to us the invisible forces and the secrets of his invincible plan that make sense of the visible events and movements experienced by his church in the world.”[iv]

  1. Revelation is a book to be seen, a book of symbols in motion. Because the appearance of individuals and institutions in every day experience often masks their true identity. Revelation is given in visions full of symbols that paradoxically picture the true identify of the church, its enemies, and its Champion.

Johnson mentions earlier that, “One of the key themes of the book is that things are not what they seem…Paradox is central to the symbolism. Not only are the things not what they appear to be in history, but also typically their true identities as portrayed in the visions are the opposite of their appearance in the world.”[v]

Hendriksen says, “The theme (of the book) is the victory of Christ and of His Church over the dragon (Satan) and his helpers. The Apocalypse is meant to show us that things are not what they seem. The beast that comes up out of the abyss seems to be victorious…But his rejoicing is premature. In reality it is the believer who triumphs.”[vi]

“If we are to follow an interpretive rule of thumb in reading Revelation, it should be that we take what John sees as symbolic where possible”, says Johnson. This reality is one that is the opposite of many in popular theology who says that we should take a “literal approach whenever possible.” Our hermeneutic shouldn’t be determined by our presuppositions, but rather by the kind of literature, the context etc. that we are reading.

This is a very important point – probably one of the most important things to keep in mind as we go through the book. Dispensationalists disagree with this viewpoint. John MacArthur represents that viewpoint and makes the case that we should take a literal view because that’s the most obvious one to take – he does not even address the different kinds of literature and how a genre affects our reading of it.[vii]

  1. Revelation makes sense only in light of the Old Testament. Not only the visions of such prophets as Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah but also historical events such as creation, the fall, and the exodus provide the symbolic vocabulary for John’s visions.

Kelly agrees with this, “These images must be understood in terms of how they were originally used in the Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. There, they do not mean the literal falling of the stars to earth, but rather the down-falling of governmental powers (such as Joseph’s dream of the sun and the moon, and the twelve stars bowing before him, meaning his parents and brothers). Not to take this into account makes it hard properly to interpret Revelation.”[viii]

  1. Numbers count in Revelation. Since numbers are used symbolically in Revelation, we must discern the meaning they convey rather than trying to pull them as numbers directly into our experience, measured by calendars and odometers.

When speaking about the number “666” Beale says, “The other numbers in Revelation are probably used figuratively without specific reference to one historical reality at one particularly point in history.”[ix]

Johnson explains that the numbers mean different things. Seven is the number of completeness/fullness, ten is significant and frequently is used in multiples to symbolize vast numbers of years or people (1,000 year, 144,000 people, 12,000 stadia etc.), twelve is the number of the people of God and so forth.

Johnson concludes, “The symbolic use of numbers in Revelation is flexible. Readers un-accustomed to this flexibility are perplexed…When we recognize the symbolic significance of numbers and the flexibility of numerical symbolism in Revelation, we will get the message that the numbers are intended to convey without pressing for a literal connection between the numerical measurements in the visions and the temporal, spatial, or demographic dimensions of their referents.”[x]

  1. Revelation is for a church under attack. Its purpose is to awaken us to the dimensions of the battle and the strategies of the enemy, so that we will respond to the attacks with faithful perseverance and purity, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.

Johnson says of Revelation that, “It’s purpose, to reveal ‘things which must soon take place,’ is not to satisfy idle eschatological curiosity or feed a hunger for revenge but to fortify Jesus’ followers in steadfast hope and holy living.” [xi]

Therefore, “our interpretation of Revelation must be driven by the difference God intends it to make in the life of his people.”[xii]

  1. Revelation concerns “what must soon take place.” We must seek an understanding that touches the experience of our brothers and sisters in seven first-century congregations scattered in the cities of western Asia Minor. Revelation is not about events and hostile forces remote from their struggle.

“Revelation gave first-century Christians insight into the purposes of God in their time. We can at least conclude, therefore, that interpretations of the visions that lie completely beyond the original reader’s frame of reference are suspect. If we begin our inquiry with the assumption that God intended first-century believers to get the message of Revelation, we read its visions against the backdrop of Old Testament imagery rather than forcing them into the template of twenty-first century technologies or politics.”[xiii]

Hendriksen agrees, saying, “A sound interpretration of the Apocolypse must take as its starting point the position that the book was intended for believers living in John’s day and age. The book owes its origin, at least in part, to contemporary conditions. It is God’s answer to the prayer and tears of severely persecuted Christians scattered about in the cities of Asia Minor.”[xiv]

But Hendriksen doesn’t stop there. He also sees that the book was written for us as well, and gives four reasons for supporting this position – reasons I believe are not only sound, but helpful as we frame our thoughts for the study. I will quote him at length for your benefit here:

First, the affliction to which the Church was subjected in the days of the Apostle John is typical of the persecution which true believers must endure throughout this entire dispensation (2 Timothy 3:12) and especially just before Christ’s second coming (Matthew 24:29-30).

Secondly, many of the predictions in which the book abounds (example, the seals, trumpets, and bowls) concerns principles and happenings which are so broad in their scope that they cannot be confined to one definite year or period of years but span the centuries reaching out to the great consummation.

Thirdly, the letters in chapters 2 and 3 are addressed to the 7 churches. Seven is the number which symbolizes completeness, its use here indicates that the church as a whole is mind and that the admonitions and consolations of this book were meant for Christian believers throughout the centuries.

Finally, all those who read and study this book in any age are called blessed (1:3) as at the beginning, so also at the close of the book, the author addressed himself not merely to one group of men living in one decade but to every man who hears the prophecy of this book (22:18).[xv]

  1. The victory belongs to God and to his Christ. Revelation is pervaded with worship songs and scenes because its pervasive theme – despite its gruesome portrait of evil’s powers – is the triumph of God through the Lamb. We read this book to hear the King’s call to courage and to fall down in adoring worship before him.

FOOTNOTES 

A note about “footnotes”: I have footnotes here not because this is an academic exercise (you’ll see this in the loose way in which I write those footnotes!), but so that I will remember where I got these quotes for future reference, and so you can look them up yourself if you’d like.  It will also show you extended thoughts on a matter that may be a little bit of a rabbit trail I didn’t want to address in class or in the main body of my text.

[i] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[ii] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.

[iii] Johnson, Pg.’s 22-23

[iv] Johnson, Pg. 6.

[v] Johnson, Pg. 9.

[vi] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[vii] John MacArthur says this, “If you just take all of that literally you come up with a premillennial view. And one of the compelling reasons to take it all literally is because there’s no other way to interpret the Bible because as soon as you say you don’t have to interpret the Bible literally, then what in the Bible don’t you have to interpret literally? I mean, how do you…how can you just say, ‘Well we don’t interpret prophecy literally, but we interpret everything else literally,’ on the basis of what? We maintain a literal, historical, grammatical contextual hermeneutic of interpretation because that’s the only way that we can understand the Bible, to take it at its historical, contextual, linguistic face value. And when you do that, you find you’re drawn to be a premillennialist because that’s the literal aspect.” But in his ardency to read the Bible “literally”, he discards simple logic and other standard interpretive rules. Sensus Literalis is thrown out the door. The approach to how we’d read any kind of literature, be that poetic, prophetic, didactic etc., are not considered.  Additionally, and much to my consternation, I’ve found that dispensationalists generally make arguments about their hermeneutic that are disingenuous. 1. They use language about “literal” and “face value” interpretations to smack down discerning theologians who see spiritual or symbolic interpretations. Then, they interpret passages which they view as symbolic as such because it suits them in the situation. They do this because they are convinced that one must approach any literature with a literal interpretation first, and then only symbolically if the literal doesn’t work – often they refuse to interpret the literature symbolically at all therefore forcing the passage at hand into a future occurrence (since nothing like a talking “beast” lives among us today!) This is a wrong-headed way to approach Scripture.  2. They regularly write about other views in a condescending manner, while continually stressing how theirs must be correct (far from the humble approach of those who hold other views, and this is found throughout Walvoord, MacArthur, and Ryrie). 3. They use terms like “replacement theology” for the views of other’s which is inaccurate. 4. They seem to completely ignore historic premillenialism – often not even mentioning it as an option. In a sermon on the millennial views MacArthur says there are only “three” major views, then goes on to describe his form of premil as one of the three. Certainly it is one of the four major views, but there is another form of premil! All of these reasons and more (not the least of which is their undervaluing of the new covenant and Christ’s current reign) give me great pause when quoting or reading from dispensational authors. Every time I read their work my stomach turns from their arrogance, condescension, and very often their lack of academic accuracy or integrity in the representation of opposing views (see J. Vernon McGee!).

[viii] Kelly, Pg. 11

[ix] Beale, Pg. 24

[x] Johnson, Pg. 16

[xi] Johnson, Pg. 16

[xii] Johnson, Pg. 18

[xiii] Johnson, Pg. 20-21

[xiv] Hendriksen, Pg. 10

[xv] Hendriksen, Pg. 10

Revelation: An Introduction Part I

This week I have started a study on Sunday mornings in the book of Revelation.  For the first few weeks we’ll be examining the overall picture of the book, and covering some introductory themes.  Below is part 1 of that introduction – I hope you enjoy!

PJW

Introduction and Overview to the Book

Why Study Revelation? 

Revelation can be intimidating. It has taken me several years just to get up the courage to study through it and teach it. Many commentators also note in their respective prefaces how difficult it was to get around to doing this study as well. Pastor Voddie Baucham says that when surveyed, a large denomination of Christians said that Revelation was the book they most wanted to hear preached. That same survey found it was the bottom of the list of books Pastors most wanted to preach![i]

The word “Revelation” or “Apocolypse” holds negative, even scary connotations in our society today. As Warren Wiersbe writes:

The word translated “revelation” simply means “unveiling.” It gives us our English word apocalypse which, unfortunately, is today a synonym for chaos and catastrophe. The verb simply means “to uncover, to reveal, to make manifest.” In this book, the Holy Spirit pulls back the curtain and gives us the privilege of seeing the glorified Christ in heaven and the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes in the world.[ii]

But I have found that in my studies thus far, it is a book that provides great blessing and perspective which can enable a Christian to persevere, and adore Christ above all other things. In fact, those are the two things that I believe makeup the two main themes of the book: Christ’s reign and ultimate victory, and our ultimate triumph with him. The second part – our eventual triumph – is the reality for which we have been called to endure. Therefore the majestic reign of Christ and the call to persevere under tribulation make up the main nexus of John’s writing.

The majestic reign of Christ and His overall splendor permeates the book. He is the Lord of history, the Lord of man and of all created things. The high Christology of Revelation is evident from the first chapter:

…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:13-18)

He is the first and the last, and the one who is “alive forevermore.” His power and His majesty are evident to all who read the book. No longer are we limited to the motif of the suffering servant, or the profound teachings of the Great Rabboni. Now we are afforded a peak, a glimpse, a view into the fuller person and majesty of Jesus Christ.

Revelation helps us understand the profundity of His cross work, and finality of His sacrifice. It helps us understand that He is sovereign over all things, including time and creation.

I really like what Warren Wiersbe has to say about the proper approach to the book: “When Daniel and John received God’s revelations of the future, both fell down as dead men (Dan. 10:7-10; Rev. 1:17). They were overwhelmed! We need to approach this book as wonderers and worshippers, not as academic students.”

But it is also a book about the saints who are called to endure. William Hendriksen says, “In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil.”[iii]

Followers of the Lamb are to endure until He comes again – that second coming is our great hope. As Hendriksen so beautifully opines:

As we think of the glorious hope of the second coming, our hearts are filled with joy; our souls are consumed with a breathless impatience; our eyes attempt to pierce the dark clouds which veil the future, hoping that the glorious descent of the Son of man may burst upon the view. It is a longing which gushes into word: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that hears, let him say, Come” (22:17).[iv]

John MacArthur points out that this is the only book in the Bible that begins and ends with a blessing. And Doug Kelley puts his finger on the reason I decided to study this book, namely the blessings/benedictions ascribed to those who would take the time to study it.

Kelly splits these into promises and blessings. The benedictions (blessings):[v]

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. (Revelation 1:3)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) (Revelation 16:15)

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)

Here are the promises to the saints that Kelly lists:[vi]

  1. God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
  2. Their prayers are heard and used to rule the world (8:3-4)
  3. Their death or suffering leads to glory (14:13; 20:4)
  4. Their final victory is assured (15:2)
  5. Their blood will be avenged (6:9; 8:3)
  6. Their Christ lives and reigns forever and is victorious in time and eternity (5:7-8; 21:22)

Clearly this gives us ample motivation to study this wonderful book!

Who wrote this Book?

Most every scholar and theologian believes that the book was written by the apostle John – the one who wrote the gospel of John, and the three epistles named for him. Some hold that perhaps another John wrote the book – a late 1st century prophet with the same name, perhaps. But G.K. Beale (who believes the apostle John is the likely author) says this, “The issue is not important to settle since it does not affect the message of the book. Regardless of which John wrote, the author of the book identifies himself as a prophet (parenthetical references). Therefore, it is probably that John should be socially identified with a group of early Christian itinerant prophets.”[vii] 

William Hendriksen thinks that the evidence for another John having written this book is particularly weak. For instance, he points out, “Surely the very fact that the author of the Apocalypse merely calls himself John indicates that he was very well known, not only in one particular locality but throughout the churches of Asia.”[viii]

Now, there are certainly different styles of grammar and writing between the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John – some say this is enough to believe another man wrote the book. But conservative scholars are not so sure. There are some differences, but there are also many similarities. Hendriksen says, “The similarities are striking. They are to be found even in peculiar grammatical constructions and in characteristic expressions.” His comparative similarities are as follows (for those who want to look them up):[ix]

John 3:36 and Revelation 22:17
John 10:18 and Revelation 2:27
John 20:12 and Revelation 3:4
John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13
John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6 
 

Some of these comparisons are more obvious, others less so. But there are many other similarities. The gospel calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” and the “Logos” and so does Revelation – these are words and phrases that make John’s gospel unique, and here we find the phrase “Lamb of God” used 29 times in Revelation.

Of course the similarities don’t stop with grammar and phraseology. The doctrine is the same in both books. The sovereignty of God, the pre-temporal nature of Christ, the conquering power of the blood of Jesus all form major doctrinal similarities between books.

I especially like the way in which John describes Jesus as pre-temporal in both books. Here are a few examples:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” [58] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:57-58)

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) 

When was this Book Written?

It is hard to overestimate the importance of discerning when this book of Revelation was written. The reason being that if the book was written prior to A.D. 70, then scholars have reason for believing that some of the things written herein refer to the events that occurred in that fateful year when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and the great Herodian (2nd) temple complex.

G.K. Beale has done a nice job compiling the different historical arguments for both viewpoints, and is worth quoting his summation here below:

The difference of dating could alter the interpretation of the book, since the occasion prompting John to write might be different in each case. The early date is especially important for those viewing the main intention of the book as prophecy of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem: interpreters who hold to the early date generally understand the book primarily as a polemic against apostate Jewish faith. And the early date places many of the book’s descriptions of persecution against the background of Nero’s oppression of Christians in 65 (A.D.).

But if the book was written in the nineties, then it was occasioned by the situation of Christians living under the reign of Domitian, a situation that itself is an issue of debate. The majority maintaining a late date have viewed Domitian as a persecutor of Christians, though a few others recently have viewed his reign in more benevolent terms.

One can in fact affirm the early date or the late date without the main interpretative approach being affected. Under either dating position the book could be understood as a polemic against Rome and especially against compromise with ungodly Roman culture. The early date allows for an anti-Jerusalem focus, but does not demand it.

There are no single arguments that point clearly to the early or the late date. The early date could be right, but the cumulative weight of evidence points to the late date.[x]

Those who are partial (or full) preterists rely on the early date because they see these events in 65 and especially in 70 AD as fulfilling the prophecies of John’s apocalypse. Full preterists even believe the Jesus Himself came back in 70 AD!

I believe the latter date is more likely simply from my own study of church history this past year in seminary. The persecution under Nero was very localized to Rome, and the rest of the church really didn’t feel the pressures as much.

Furthermore, as Beale and others point out, when Pliny (a magistrate/governor of Rome) was trying to figure out what to do with Christians in 113 AD he wrote to Emperor Trajan as there seemed to be no previous law code or judicial or military precedent as to how to deal with them.[xi] 

Furthermore, John uses the term “Babylon” throughout the book, and while some see this as a sort of symbolic name for the “apostate Jerusalem”, Beale rightly (I believe) notes, “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date. ‘Babylon refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 A.D. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome ‘Babylon’ because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C. This use of the name probably influenced John, as did other Jewish traditions.”[xii]

Lastly, it is the testimony of very early Christian authors that this book was written at a later date. Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Origen, and possibly Clement of Alexandria as well all believed the book to be written post 70 A.D.[xiii]

Irenaeus’ writings are especially important. In discussing the antichrist’s identify he wrote that, “We will not, however incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the Antichrist; if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him (John) who beheld the Apocalypse. For it was seen not very long ago, but almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”

This is very hard to refute for early daters no matter how much they try and re-translate or offer new ideas about what Ireneaus clearly spoke.

Early daters mention a number of arguments in their favor, from the mention of the “seven mountains” in 17:9, which are supposed to be seven kings of Rome, to the calculation of the number 666 as meaning Nero in the gematria, to Babylon (which we’ve already mentioned). Beale goes through each argument (and several more) and I really don’t find the weight of these arguments convincing.

Therefore, while either date might be correct, it seems like the weight of both the historical and internal arguments on behalf of a later date rule the day.

The Importance of Hermeneutics

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[xiv]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[xv]

…to be continued…

Footnotes

[i] Voddie Baucham: http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/sermons/2012-05-introduction-revelation/

[ii] Warren Wiersbe, Commentary on the New Testament (The David Cook two volume set), Revelation, Pg. 1036.

[iii] William Hendriksen, ‘More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation’, Pg. 7.

[iv] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[v] Douglas F. Kelly, Revelation, A mentor expository commentary, Pg. 21

[vi] Kelly, Pg. 21

[vii] From G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, Pg.’s 35-36

[viii] Hendriksen, Pg. 12

[ix] Hendriksen, Pg. 12 – carries on the discussion onto page 13 as well, and really provides some helpful comparative verses here. Shockingly, he leaves out John 8 which I cite above (it’s one of my favorite examples of Jesus’ pre-temporal existence).

[x] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, Commentary, Pg. 4

[xi] Beale, Pg. 5

[xii] Beale, Pg.’s 18-19

[xiii] Beale, Pg. 19

[xiv] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[xv] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.