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

The Restoration of Peter

Here are my notes for John 21:8-17. This account includes the restoration of the Apostle Peter.  After denying the Lord three times, the Lord Jesus has restored his friend to ministry in a public and profound way.

The Miracle

21:8-14 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. [9] When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. [10] Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” [11] So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. [12] Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. [13] Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. [14] This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

One can really sense the authority and majesty of Jesus in the fact that no one “dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’”

What’s in a Number?

It is always interesting when Scripture uses such a specific number to describe something. In this case, the disciples caught 153 fish. Why would John remark on that specifically? Well, I think that we can easily say that it was worth noting how many fish simply because it’s a lot of fish! Not that the number itself is significant, but rather that the exact number tells us something of how impressive the catch actually was.

Now, there are other (MANY other) interpretations that range from the bizarre to the more plausible. Hendriksen notes about 7 of them just as a sampling, but even a cursory search of the internet seems to reveal a plethora of others.

Some of the ideas are (quoting Hendriksen):

  1. The fish were not counted until the shore had been reached, in order to teach us that the exact number of the elect remains unknown until they have reached the shore of heaven.
  2. The ancients counted one hundred fifty-three varieties of fish!
  3. There is here a veiled reference to Matt. 13:47, 48, and an indication that all kinds of people are going to be saved.
  4. The number one hundred fifty-three represents 100 for the Gentiles, 50 for the Jews, and 3 for the Trinity.

My friend Uri, an expert in Israeli history and culture, told me that he likes the idea that the number represents the different varieties of fish because it points to the universality of the gospel and the diversity of the church. He says, “In Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis he lists all the known fish species at the time. Behold 153. The significance is the universality of the church. 153 fish, all the species/nations of the world can fit into the net and the net is not broken.”

The Abundance of the Miracle

In every miracle that our Lord has performed there is one consistent theme – what He does He does in abundance!

He made more wine at Cana than was necessary, He made more fish in Luke 5 than the disciples could take in, He made more bread and fish for the 5000 than the crowd needed, and He healed hundreds – if not thousands of men and women. Note also that when He healed people, he didn’t just give them an aspirin. They would have been happy for their suffering to be relieved I’d wager. But He completely healed them. What God does He does in such a way as to indicated that He is God, AND that He is good!

The Lord who remarked that a good father gives his children a fish and not a snake, gives fish in abundance. In everyway and on every level that you have provided for your children, the Father and His Son have far outstripped you. They have lavished grace and peace and in the life to come riches beyond measure.

And just as Jesus bid the disciples to come and eat breakfast with him, so he calls to us, his children, to dine with him. His call to believers is this:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. [21] The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:20-21)

Seeing A Larger Picture with Ryle

J.C. Ryle has examined this passage and, surveying all the commentators up till his time, has provided some thoughts on the possible broader allegorical meaning of the matter. He is quick to say, however, that we must have caution in adding more to the thing than that which is already there. But still, there are some observations that may hearten us and enrich the passage as a whole. Here is what he says:

Other expositors, of a more figurative and imaginative turn of mind, go into heights and depths where I cannot pretend to follow them. I shall content myself with pointing out the more obvious spiritual lessons which I think the passage was probably meant to convey.

(a) I think that Christ’s remarkable appearance to the disciples, when they were in the act of fishing, was meant to remind them and the whole Church of the primary duty of ministers. They were doing work which was strikingly emblematic of their calling. They were to be “fishers of men.”

(b) I think the lack of success in catching fish, which the disciples had until the Lord appeared, was meant to teach that without Christ’s presence and blessing ministers can do nothing.

(c) I think the marvelous success that attended the cast of the net, when Christ gave the command, was meant to teach that when Christ is pleased to give success to ministers, nothing can prevent souls being brought into the Gospel net, converted and saved.

(d) I think the drawing of the net to shore at last was meant to remind the disciples and all ministers of what will happen when the Lord comes again. The work of the Church will be completed, and the reckoning of results will take place.

(e) I think the dinner prepared and provided for the disciples, when the net was drawn to the shore, was meant to remind ministers that there will be the great “marriage supper of the Lamb” at last, when Christ Himself shall welcome His faithful servants and ministers, and “come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37).

(f) I think, besides this, that the respective positions of the disciples and Christ, when they first saw Him, may possibly be intended to represent the respective positions of Christ and His people during this dispensation. They were on the water of the sea. He was looking at them from the land. Just so Christ is in heaven looking at us, and we are voyaging over the troublous waters of this world.

(g) Finally, I think that our Lord’s sudden appearing on shore, when the morning broke, may possibly represent our Lord’s second advent. “The night is far spent, and the day is at hand.” When the morning dawns, Christ will appear.

With these conjectures I leave the passage. They may not commend themselves to some readers. I only say that they appear to me to deserve consideration and reflection.

Certainly they do deserve consideration! I think that perhaps letter (f) is a little far fetched, and letters (d) and (e) are very similar. But he is correct that from what I have read at least, letters (a), (b) and (c) are universal in their appearance in the minds of many commentators, and definitely appeared in my mind as I studied the passage.

These are great ideas to reflect upon in the coming days, and a marvelous reminder of the richness of Scripture. It is passages like this which kept Spurgeon busy for hours at a time! Certainly they should also keep us busy in our meditation.

21:15-17 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” [16] He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” [17] He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

The Restoration of Peter

Setting the Scene

I have been to this very spot where Jesus is said to have called these men to shore for breakfast. I have sung ‘How Great Thou Art’ at full tilt with other men and women in the small chapel that sits firmly ensconced upon that shore. This is a beautiful place!

What makes it beautiful is multi-dimensional. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, and ears with the flowering trees and waves breaking upon the shore, but it is a spiritual feast – even an emotional and mental feast for anyone who has ever been restored by the Lord Jesus. And that group includes me.

In this segment of verses we read how Peter and the Lord, while sitting amongst the other disciples, had what must have been their first bit of extended conversation since the night of Jesus’ death. Jesus had appeared to them prior, but apparently had not spent a lot of time in one-on-one discussion, or extended teaching of them yet (as in Acts 1:3).

Therefore the last time that Peter and conversed with the Lord in any substantive manner was during the Farewell Discourses when, as we recall, Peter had proudly declared that he’d follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus’ reply to Peter’s declaration was to prophecy that in just a few short hours Peter was deny Him not once, but three times.

Peter learned that fateful evening that though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak. Peter not only denied Jesus, he did so in public. Therefore, as D.A. Carson summarizes, “Whatever potential for future service he (Peter) had therefore depended not only on forgiveness from Jesus, but also on reinstatement amongst the disciples.”

I Agape your Phileo and Raise you an Agape

Now Jesus, the great Shepherd of His flock, begins his interactions with Peter by asking him if he “loves” him “more than these.” In this context Jesus likely means “these” as the disciples. He is daring Peter to once again assert his supremacy. And in doing so, His words cut to Peter’s heart and remind him that though he claims to be the most loyal and dutiful disciples, he has a recent failure of such magnitude that with each passing word from the lips of Jesus, Peter must have been smarting all the more.

Peter responds in the affirmative, and with each affirmative reply, Jesus charges Peter to “Feed the lambs”, “tend my sheep”, and feed my sheep.”

Much has, perhaps rightly, been made of how when Jesus asked Peter whether he “loved” him, he was using the word “agape” whereas Peter was responding with “phileo” for his description of love.

There are four expressions of love in the Greek language, as the wonderful web resource Gotquestions.org has stated:

The Bible speaks of two types of love: phileo and agape. Both are Greek terms and appear at different points throughout Scripture. The Greek language also had terms for two other types of love, eros and storge, which do not expressly appear in the Bible.
http://www.gotquestions.org/phileo-love.html#ixzz3FWIhOYPt

Many scholars have argued about the differences between phileo and agape. The usual summary is that Agape is more a love of choice – a sacrificial love. It is a matter of the will. Whereas Phileo is a love of affection and is based somewhat on emotion.

GotQuestions.org sums up this popular teaching in this way:

Since phileo love involves feelings of warmth and affection toward another person, we do not have phileo love toward our enemies. However, God commands us to have agape love toward everyone. This includes those whose personalities clash with ours, those who hurt us and treat us badly, and even those who are hostile toward our faith (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44). In time, as we follow God’s example of agape love for our enemies, we may even begin to experience phileo love for some of them as we start to see them through God’s eyes.

But I don’t know that it’s correct to say that Peter didn’t truly love Christ, but rather Christ was setting the kind of example Peter must follow. He may have been proclaiming to Peter the kind of love – sacrificial love, love of difficult choices, noble love – that He had for His sheep. Now Peter needed to have that same love for the sheep.

That being said, D.A. Carson and F.F. Bruce both lay a very good case out for why its very hard to draw any particular conclusion simply from the use of different nouns – especially in this Gospel when John has been using agape and phileo interchangeably up until now.

I find this extremely important when figuring out questions of interpretation. We need to look at the context of the book and how the author has used words in the past. And while we need to take a sample of the common vernacular as well, I would think that the authorial usage takes slight precedent over cultural commonality if there are multiple examples to draw from, and indeed there are in this book.

Additionally, there is some evidence that agape was also coming into more common use at the time to mean simply “to love” (per Carson).

This is another example of how sometimes popular tradition gets it wrong – or at least assumes perhaps a little more than we ought to assume. Once our inquiries and speculation have been done, if we don’t have a preponderance of evidence before us that leaves us certain of our views, we must humbly step away from proclaiming our views to be “doctrine.”

Soon I will be studying through Revelation with our Sunday School class, and I find a similar example of illogical hermeneutics applied to the millennium in that book. So much is made of whether the millennium is a literal 1,000 years when up until that 20th chapter in Revelation no other number (save perhaps the 7 churches?) was used in a literal fashion. But it is popular tradition now to assume this be the case. Ought we not to ask how John has written of such things in other parts of his book?

I raise this only as a caution that we approach Scripture with humility – especially those with learning and education. For those without education are less apt to project their assumptions onto Scripture and are often open to correction. However it is the learned man or woman who confidently asserts opinion where angels dare not tread. Let us with humility interpret the Word of God.

The Friendship of Jesus

One of the most difficult things to do is confront a brother who has sinned and is in need to rebuke and restoration. We are commanded by Paul to “speak the truth in love.”

What touches my heart so much about this passage in John is the tenderness of Jesus. His tripartite restoration of this impetuous man mirrored the three-fold denial which Peter had so shamefully displayed just days before.

The realization that here in one man is Peter’s God and friend, his Savior, and His Lord, this must have been overwhelming. It is overwhelming to me. It is why one of my favorite verses in Scripture is Exodus 33:11. The passage goes like this:

When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. (Exodus 33:9-11)

If you have found yourself covered in shame, if you have wronged your Lord, take comfort – we all have wronged our Lord. We have all sinned against God. But the blessing of this passage is the reminder that even the greatest leaders can fall, and even the greatest falls can be restored. We have a Savior, aye, this is true – but more than that, we have a friend.

Joseph Scriven’s great hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

 

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

 

Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.
 

The Mission Given to Peter

I’ve briefly touched on this earlier, but we must examine briefly again the mission that is given to the Apostle Peter. Jesus has specifically given him a mission. That mission is to feed the sheep, to tend the flock and so forth. He must watch over the new church of Christ, and must also feed them.

Carson quotes Barrett and quips, “The ministry ‘is described in verbs, not nouns: Tend, feed, not Be a pastor, hold the office of pastor. And the sheep are Christ’s sheep, not Peter’s. Not, Tend your flock, but Tend my sheep.’

What does it mean to feed the flock? Well, if the “flock” is the church then we must necessarily believe the “feeding” and “tending” are also metaphorical devices. The church feeds off of the Word of God.

This is made plain even as far back as Moses’ interactions with the Israelites when he told them:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Jesus himself quoted this verse to rebuke Satan during His temptation in the wilderness before the beginning of His ministry.

In fact, He later called Himself the bread from heaven, which is simply another way of saying that He is the Word of God incarnate. The bread and the word are one in the same, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And indeed Peter understood this. For later he would go on to say:

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Peter understood that He was being tasked with the spiritual nutrition of the church. Ironically, and scornfully, those who claim direct papal descent from this man are the ones starving the church of its food. The Catholic church (so-called) does not encourage the reading of Scripture, in fact it is the greatest rationer of spiritual nutrition in all the world. Which is why it is with great irony that they are the ones who claim this passage (along with Matthew 16:13-20) as one which sets down the primacy of Peter because not only does it do nothing of the sort, but even if it did, they do not follow the instructions to him who was supposedly made primal.

Carson rightly says, “Thus there is nothing intrinsic to the language of John 21:15-17 that suggests a distinctive authority for Peter. All Christian leadership entails a certain tension between authority and meek, exemplary service, patterned finally on Jesus himself. In the context of the Fourth Gospel, these verses deal with Peter’s reinstatement to service, not his elevation to primacy.”

Yes while most everyone else in the world is either trying purposefully to spread the word of God, or trying hard to stop the spread of this word, the Catholic hierarchy is content to slow drip the Word to a body that is thirsty and dying of starvation.

Conclusion

Now our response must be carefully assessed. For we cannot read this and judge ourselves content to move on before we settle some things in our mind. Let us settle at least these few things:

  1. The Word of God is that which feeds the church and it must be spread throughout the whole world.
  2. The Word is what changes lives, and therefore must not be adulterated or watered down by our own ideas.
  3. We must give great time and energy to studying and spending time in the Word of God.
  4. We must teach others the Word of God – this is the feeding of the lambs.
  5. Jesus told Peter to tend the lambs, which is to say that our leaders must be watchful for the safety of the church, keeping an eye out for wolves and for sheep who have gone astray.

It is a great and precious thing to be both restored and given a task. That is what Peter experienced, and that is what Paul says we each experience – we are not only saved, but we are saved for a purpose:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Let us take this restoration as a reminder of the open arms of Christ, and the charge he gives us upon restoration. He has saved us – and not to mope about in introspection for our entire lives, but to love others in service to our Lord. In this we look to Him the author and finisher of our faith, and our true Friend and Brother.

Properly Interpreting Scripture

In class this past Sunday I mentioned a good rule for interpreting Scripture – namely that we should interpret the difficult, less clear passages by the more passages in Scripture that are explicit.  We should always interpret the implicit by the explicit.

I mentioned that this method of interpretation falls under what is called ‘The Analogy of Faith’ which puts forth the idea that all Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture because there are no contradictions in Scripture.  J.I. Packer notes that, “The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity.”

R.C. Sproul says, “the supreme arbiter in interpreting the meaning of a particular verse in Scripture is the overall teaching of the Bible.” If we come across a word or phrase that seems to contradict what we see plainly tough in other parts of Scripture, then we need to ask ourselves if we’re reading this verse correctly and begin to test our thoughts against what we know is plainly taught in other parts of Scripture.

Lastly, if you are stumped by a passage of Scripture, it is helpful to seek guidance from those who are wiser than you are.  This is why Biblical commentaries are written, and why leaders in the church are supposed to help the layperson clearly understand the scripture.  This was the even the case in the Old Testament (see Nehemiah 8:8).

More resources on correctly interpreting Scripture:

A short article by Sproul explaining some of his methods (START HERE)

R.C Sproul’s series (there is also a book) called ‘Knowing Scripture’ (all levels of maturity)  Here’s a link to the book.

A longer article by J.I. Packer on interpretation (more advanced)

A few good Bible Commentaries for your own personal study are:

Matthew Henry – good for all levels, though the english is older

Crossway’s Individual Bible Commentaries – good for a serious student

Warren Wiersbe Commentary Set – good for beginners

Believer’s Bible Commentary – good for all levels

John MacArthur’s Commentary Set – good for the serious student

Calvin’s Commentary Set – good for the advanced student