The Power of Words

The Power of Words

A Sermon to be delivered on October 4, 2015 at Christ Redeemer Church in Newark, OH

Introduction and Background

When I sat down at the wire-framed outdoor table at Panera, it had been a long day already. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon, and constant phone calls had my ear throbbing.

The email from one of my best friends the day before saying that he’d like to get together this evening, had come as a bit of a surprise. He said he’d like to share something that had been on his heart.

A heart to heart? With another dude? “Something must be wrong”, I thought to myself.

The last time I had received such an email, my buddy had uncomfortably approached me about some sin in my life – some things that I hadn’t thought much at all about, but that had been nagging at him for weeks, if not months.  

Was this going to be another such encounter? “No way!” I thought, searching my mind a little here and there between meetings and calls. I can’t think of anything I’ve done wrong…wonder what this is all about…

But sure enough, the awkward meeting was not long underway before I learned that some of my words had offended. And there was no way around it – I had blown it.

As it turns out, I had used words that offended my friend.

If you have ever been so fortunate as to have had one of these lovely conversations, then you know two things about them. First, they are very uncomfortable. This isn’t a carnival cruise – its more like one of those miserable “free” cruises you win on the radio – you often get more than you bargain for, and its extremely uncomfortable!

Second, you know that they are moments of great learning and growth. They take a lot of courage for your friends, and they are orchestrated by God for your good. This is life in the New Covenant community. Life in the midst of the church, surrounded by people who care enough about you to kindly, but firmly say, “hey, we need to talk.”

The Key Point: Words are powerful, they can transform lives, heal broken hearts, topple great nations, and they are prized by our King. They are so because they reflect the character of God formed in us. They reflect our hearts.

This passage has many dimensions to it, but I especially want to focus on words this morning.

So let us begin where Paul begins to get an idea of the context for his exhortations.

In every Christian right doctrine, right knowledge of Jesus and His Word, is the foundation for their speech. From right knowledge flow right actions, soft hearts, and truthful words.

The Context – The Transformed Mind 

Back up with me, and read from Ephesians 4 beginning in verse 17 where Paul is going to remind the Ephesian church of “how they learned Christ” – that is to say, who they are in Christ.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. [18] They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. [19] They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. [20] But that is not the way you learned Christ!—[21] assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [22] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, [23] and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, [24] and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24 ESV)

John Stott argues that the “putting off” and “putting on” of this passage isn’t in the imperative, that is to say, it isn’t a direct command. Rather it’s a reminder of the truth that’s already been accomplished by Jesus in their lives.

Paul is not telling them something new. He is appealing to a truth they ought to know already – if indeed they have “learned Christ” – and he knows they have.

He is reminding them that as new creations in Christ, they must act in a way that reflects their new life. They must not clamp back on the shackles Jesus has paid a great price to break them free of.

As Stott reminds us, “Being a Christian involves radical change.” Once that radical change has taken place in our lives, we cannot, we must not live outside of that reality.

Therefore, Paul is reminding them of the gospel. And so it is that right doctrine leads to right behavior.

With that in mind, he begins to exhort them.

As we read these verses, notice that there is both a negative exhortation and a positive instruction. Put on/Put off. It is not good enough not to say or do something; one must replace the chains and filth of previous speech with the grace and beauty of speech that marks the new life in Christ.

Put off Falsehood

4:25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Earlier in the chapter Paul says:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, [16] from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

This earlier instruction flowed from an explanation that their elders served the purpose of building up the church. They are a “gift” to the church because they are speaking the words of God’s truth to the congregation.

This reminds us of the importance of a good pastor/elder!

But Paul extends his instruction to the entire congregation because we have all been joined to Jesus through adoption. We have become fellow heirs and sons in His royal family.

Falsehood ought not to mark the people of God because it is lies that serve as the foundation for the enemies kingdom.

John MacArthur notes that every other world religion is built upon Satan’s lies. The world fell into darkness through belief in lies. The Son of God was crucified because men believed lies. Jesus’ own apostle Peter denied Him speaking lies and cuss words.

In J.R.R. Tolkein’s great writing, the enemy emanating from the land of Mordor is said to speak in “black speech” – a term coined to convey the filth of evil.

Falsehood is the province of the enemy, and no Christian ought to dabble in the black speech of Satan.

Falsehood breaks fellowship. This is like the hand stabbing the leg “behind its back” (so to speak)! It affects the whole body. It is like aiding and abetting the enemy; allowing him to use us to hurt other members of our Lord’s glorious army.

James reminds us:

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, [8] but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. [9] With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. [10] From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:7-10)

And so Paul continues… 

Put off Corrupt Speech/Put on Grace 

4:29-30 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. [30] And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  

Let me first state what Paul is not saying. He is not saying that we not speak boldly against injustice or against evil. And sometimes those types of words seem to have a destructive appearance, not an edifying one. However, speaking words of truth from a spirit of love, speaking truth in the face of injustice and evil and villainy, while it may scandalize the listener, will later build up those who are wise, and have a purging affect on those who are true believers in the long term.

To give a secular example – Ronald Reagan did not temper his words at the Brandenburg Gate. Though his senior advisers (Powell/Baker) didn’t want that line use, saying it was “unpresidential” and didn’t fit the occasion, Reagan disagreed. At the crucial moment, he spoke truth, and that truth led to the end of the cold war.

To give a spiritual example – Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms did not temper his words or take back what he had written in his books. Even though it caused great division and scandal in the church in the short term, in the long term Martin Luther helped bring the church out of darkness and into the light of the truth of God’s word.

What Paul is saying is this: you are new creations in Christ. Do not let your words resemble a polluted, mangled, and fallen creation. Do not let your words signal corruption and sin.

Corruption is closely associated with the Fall, and that old body of sin which you have left behind. Corrupt speech ought not to characterize those whom Christ is re-creating in His image.

Words that edify are not always easy words to hear, but they ought always to be gracious words. Our Lord was said to be “full of grace and truth”, and though he had hard saying and rebukes for the people, yet His words always fit the occasion.

“Fitting the occasion” has to do with discernment. Later on Paul goes on to state, “…try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

May we have discernment as He did, using words that are a balm of healing as well as a sword of truth.

And the motive for our words is to please the Lord and not grieve the Spirit.

You are to remember what Christ has done for you – particularly in giving the gift of the Spirit who has “Sealed” you for the day of redemption, when Christ comes back.

This is like Paul stating, “your great Savior and Friend has given you the help and safety of the Spirit, and you ought to remember that speaking to others in corruption also hurts your friend Jesus and His Spirit.”

It is a beautiful gospel truth that woven into Paul’s exhortation there is a reminder that they have been “Sealed” until Christ’s return. That is to say, nothing they can do or say will now separate them from their Lord.

And Paul’s choice of “redemption” is not accidental. It is a reminder that while they strive against “corruption” which still inhabits their flesh, they know that one day their mouths will be “redeemed” – God’s re-creation will be complete.

He continues…

Put off Slander/Put on Kindness

4:31-32 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. [32] Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  

Here is the perfect example of the put on/put off. He says to put away anger and clamor and slander and malice, but to put on kindness and tenderheartedness.

Slander is the maligning of another person’s character – often behind their backs. It is the destroying of a reputation. Basically, it is the passing of judgment on another often in order to show oneself in a superior light.

Again, there is a difference between speaking truth, and maliciously tearing down another person. Often we say things behind someone’s back that we’d never speak to their face. These things ought not to be (James 3:10).

Speaking a rebuke in the spirit of love is done from a desire to edify, and done to someone’s face.

What is the remedy? Gospel kindness.

You can forgive, you can stop slandering, you can conquer bitterness BECAUSE God has done a great thing in Christ.

This is not simply a reminder of the example of Jesus as a pattern to follow. It is a command to replace Spirit-empowered kindness with flesh-corrupted slander.

You have been empowered by the Spirit to live in the likeness of His pattern.

Therefore, not only does the example of Jesus humble and focus our minds, but the Spirit gives us the desires we need to be kind, to speak truthfully, to withhold slander, and the maligning of others.

This is what it means to live as a new creation – this is what new covenant life in Jesus is all about.

Conclusion – To what end are we living?

5:1-2 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. [2] And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Let me conclude with these two verses because they are a beautiful reminder of who we are in Christ, and to what end we are aiming.

Too often we Christians abuse our freedom in Christ. I believe this is the case because we forget the cost of our loose words, and the power they contain for good.

No one here wakes up on Saturday morning having to make the trek to the temple. You don’t have to spend several hours hauling or herding an animal to its destination, only to watch the animal butchered, the blood pouring out in sacrifice. You don’t have to spend your afternoons staring at the blood trickling down over the alter; a reminder of why you would be there in the first place – sin. You sinned.

Yet we do have a sacrifice – and a bloody one at that.

Too often our thoughts are not meditating upon the cross in a meaningful and personal way. Too often we forget that profane word, that unkind gesture, that crude joke, that unloving action, all cost Christ a painful trip to the cross.

So Paul wants us to remember the gospel – not in order to enslave us to moralism, but to remind us that we have been bought with a price, and that price was far too high for us to be uncaring in action, cold in heart, and loose with our words.

So in these final two verses the apostle says that we are to “imitate God” in order to be a “Fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

There are two main things we need to take away here…

  1. You have been adopted into the family of Jesus, and are joined to Him spiritually as a bride is joined to the bridegroom. Therefore your identity is to be found in Him. We are to be imitators of Him as “beloved children.” You have put off the old man and put on the new. Brothers and sisters, let us walk that way this week – in the power of the Spirit, let us strive toward holiness with our mouths. Lifting each other up. Saying things that mark us as Christians. Not saying other things that would cause our Father grief.
  1. The aim of our speech is to bring glory to God. If we cannot say for certain that our words would be a pleasing aroma to Jesus, then we ought to reconsider their content.

Ultimately, there is life and death in our words – there’s a great deal at stake, as Paul reminds us elsewhere:

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, [16] to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)

No one is sufficient for them because we cannot fully understand the privilege of being a child of the King and representing Him here on earth.

Not only is it our privilege, but bringing glory to God is the highest reason for our very existence. For as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Jonathan Edwards sums up:

In God, the love of what is fit and decent, cannot be a distinct thing from the love of Himself, because the love of God is that wherein all holiness primarily and chiefly consists, and God’s own holiness must primarily consist in the love of Himself. And if God’s holiness consists in love to Himself, then it will imply an approbation of the esteem and love of Him in others. For a being that loves himself, necessarily loves love to himself. If holiness in God consists chiefly in love to himself, holiness in the creature must chiefly consist in love to Him. And if God loves holiness in Himself, he must love it in the creature (pg. 173 the end for which God made the world).

Our words reflect the very image of God being renewed in us, and therefore the character of God being formed in us is shown forth in our words. Because God regards His own character as the most pleasing and worthwhile thing in the universe, He loves to see this character reflected back to Himself and shown to a watching world as a testament to His own greatness.

May the Lord bless the rays of His character that shine forth from your mouths, and may you look at your words more carefully – for what they really are – powerful tools in the Redeemers hand, reflections of His attributes and the work He has done within you, for the edification of the church and the glory of God.

Amen.

 

 

 

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The Church at Laodicea

Below are my notes from yesterday morning’s teaching on Revelation. I hope you enjoy!

To the Church in Laodicea

Laodicea is an ancient city in present-day western Turkey, founded by Seleucid King Antiochus II in honor of his wife, Laodice.[i] The city was originally called Diospolis, which is “the city of Zeus.” The city of Laodicea was in the Lychus valley, and it was near two other cities – Colossae and Hierapolis. Like the other cities, it was in the general area of the SW corner of modern day Turkey, but it was actually one of the furthest to the East of the others – about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was located on a very tall plateau and had a prominent position along several trade routes, making it an ideal city economically.

John MacArthur notes on its economic situation:

It was strategically located at the junction of two important roads: the east-west road leading from Ephesus into the interior, and the north-south road from Pergamum to the Mediterranean Sea. That location made it an important commercial city. That the first century BC Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero cashed his letters of credit there reveals Laodicea to have been a strategic banking center. So wealthy did Laodicea become that it paid for its own reconstruction after a devastating earthquake in AD 60, rejecting offers of financial aid from Rome.[ii]

The city’s only weakness was that it didn’t have its own source of water. It had a culvert that ran into the city and provided it with water from several miles away. This would have been a problem if the city was ever under attack, but I didn’t read a lot about attacks on the city.

So this city was basically economically and socially stable, non-controversial, and boring.

In fact, one of the things I found most interesting in my study about the city of Laodicea was that the city itself was not very remarkable. In fact, Ramsay says, “There is no city whose spirit and nature are more difficult to describe than Laodicea. There are no extremes, and hardly any very strongly marked features.”[iii]

Life was pretty easy in Laodicea, and “even the Talmud spoke scornfully of the life of ease and laxity lived by the Laodicean Jews.”[iv]

All of that seems an appropriate segue to what Jesus has to say about the Christians living in this part of Asia…

3:14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.

Let’s just take a moment to notice Jesus’ words about Himself and what they mean. Jesus calls himself the “Amen” because He is the truth. The only other place in Scripture where “Amen” is used as a name is Isaiah 65:16 where God uses it to describe Himself, and the word used is also translated “truth” (that is how the NASB, ESV and NIV translate it). The context of the passage is worth bearing in mind, because the next verse in Isaiah also provides help:

So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes. [17] “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:16-17)

When commenting on this passage in Isaiah, Peter Gentry says this:

God’s plan of restoration brings us back to the pristine state of Eden – in a world now much better and greater. Augustine once said that he feared to entrust his soul to the great Physician lest he be more thoroughly cured than he cared to be. God’s plan of salvation is absolutely thorough, and He is not going to be satisfied with some half job of reformation and renewal.[v]

We’ll return to verse 17 momentarily…

Next He says that He is the “faithful and true witness” which has to do with the work that God has been doing in and through redemptive history from Adam up until His own life, death and resurrection. Jesus has been a faithful witness to this work, and His word can be trusted because He is “true.”

As Christians we want to be “true” witnesses of the work God has done not only in our lives, but most especially of the work done by God in Christ.

Lastly, He says that He is “the beginning of God’s creation.” Just as mentioned in the context of Isaiah 65:17, which deals with the new creation, Jesus is calling Himself the first creation – not in the sense that He was first made at the beginning of the world, but in the sense of how Paul mentions this in his letter to the church at Colossae “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)

When Jesus tells this church that He is the “first born”, the faithful “witness” and the “Amen”, He is quite simply stating that God has been working in and through redemptive history to bring it to a teleos, a specific goal. And that goal was Jesus Christ. That is Why Paul can say, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

He is the beginning of God’s work of renewing the entirety of creation. What He inaugurated in Christ, He continues with us, for as Paul says to the Corinthians:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV)

And what does it mean to be a minister of reconciliation but that we are fellow witnesses to the work of God, and His great purposes in this world. What began as a promise in Genesis 3:15 has come to fruition in Christ, and now includes us, His new creations!

3:15-16 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! [16] So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Once again Jesus begins his exhortation with the words “I know.” Therefore let us pause and once again remember that while Jesus was indeed man, and is indeed ever making intercession on behalf before the Father, yet He is God and He shares in the power and wisdom and knowledge of the eternal Godhead. All things are known to Him. He has eyes like a “flame of fire” (1:14) “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

Now, a lot has been made of the chastisement here to this church in past sermons and teachings on this passage. The charge is that they are “lukewarm” – they are basically going through the motions. They hold to the faith – for He is writing to believers, to the church – yet they are lukewarm in their heart attitude about Jesus.

G.K. Beale provides some helpful background:

Laodicea had two neighbors, Hierapolis and Colossae. Hierapolis had hot waters which possessed medicinal effects, while Colossae had cold water, which was also though to be healthy. Laodicea had no good water source, however, and it had to pipe it in. By the time it arrived, it was lukewarm and dirty – only fit for spitting out. In fact, it was generally held to be true in the ancient world that cold and hot water or wine were beneficial for one’s health, but not water which was lukewarm.[vi]

Of course Jesus’ reaction is brutal. He says He’d like to spit them out of His mouth!

It got me thinking – what is it that causes Christians to become lukewarm?

I think that constant trials, discouragement, lack of time in the Word of God, lack of prayer, and especially a forgetfulness of the privileges we have in the Gospel. Perhaps all of these things contribute to this state.

John Owen put it well, “Our greatest hindrance in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.”[vii]

Christians become lukewarm when we forget the length to which Christ has gone to bring us life and joy. Contemplation on the Gospel of Christ so crucial for helping remind us all that we have in Christ. This is why I love the passage my discipleship group is working to memorize right now from the book of Titus:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

This is one of the reasons why Paul resolved to preach nothing but Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1) – because if our foundation in life comes from ourselves, it’s easy to fall away. It’s easy enough to fall away when we believe all the right things! We need help – and we need to remember the Gospel.

Now, one other thing also pushes us away from God, and that is idolatry. That is more specifically what was going on with this particular group of people…

3:17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

They were in this prosperous city, on two major trade routes, and they had everything they needed.

When we are weak, when we are sick, when we are desperately looking for a job – that’s when we turn to Jesus. That’s when we “get religion” isn’t it!

But how quickly we fall away under the weight and distraction of our comfortable lives.

The same thing happened to Israel, which is what Hosea was saying in his prophecy to them. Samuel Rutherford explains:

…that was in Hosea’s days (Hosea 2:14). “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her to the wilderness and speak to her heart.” There was no talking to her heart while He and she were in the fair and flourishing city and at ease; but out in the cold, hungry, waste wilderness, He allureth her, He whispered in news into her ear there, and said, “Thou art mine.”

What was the solution?

3:18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

Jesus urges them to purchase refined gold, white garments, and salve for their eyes. To purchase the truth of His word, the purity of the work of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel opening power of the Spirit so that they could see.

He describes His gospel as gold – and in many ways He is the true treasure, the true inheritance. He is the great prize, Amen? When we have Him we are rich beyond the measure of this world, we have consciences cleansed from all iniquity and we wear the righteousness of Jesus before the throne of God.

And as I mentioned before, it is only through the supernatural power of the Spirit of God that we are able to see the truth of these things.

I am reminded of the story of the blind man in who Jesus healed in John 9. After washing in the pool of Siloam he was not only able to see, but his whole life changed. His heart changed. It was evident that God was working within him.

That’s what we need; we need to see and to savor the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to see reality – and reality is that He is a great treasure.

3:19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. [20] 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.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat in sermon after sermon and heard this verse used as a plea to the unbeliever. That would be using this out of context. Jesus here is clearly speaking to believers. He begins by saying that “those whom I love” I will “reprove and discipline.”

God doesn’t reprove and discipline unbelievers – He lets them go their own way and in the final day will judge them by their deeds.

Later on here he closes the letter as He does all the other letters, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Unbelievers don’t have ears to hear. Unbelievers don’t have eyes to see. Those things come from God the Holy Spirit.

Therefore He is speaking to believers here, and knowing this, what He says is all that much more precious. He reminds them that He loves them!

This is very much like what the author of Hebrews says in chapter twelve:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. [6] For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” [7] It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? [8] If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. [9] Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? [10] For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. [11] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)

And He is calling on them to “repent” – specifically to be zealous and repent. The idea here in being zealous is to snap out of the lukewarm condition He has found them in and act as a Christian ought to act – zealously! And in their zeal they are to humble themselves before the Lord and repent, with the promise that all who do will be once again restored to communion with our Lord. He will “eat with him.”

Eating with someone is an intimate form of communion. You’re guard is down. You’re relaxed. You’re enjoying food – and food is an emotional thing. People are connected to what they eat – they care about it, they spend tons of time preparing it, searching for the best restaurants, learning how to make good food, learning what they like to eat and so on. If you eat a bad meal it sort of angers you. When you eat with someone that is another level of fellowship with them.

And this is the aim of what Jesus is doing here. He is working to restore fellowship with mankind. He is reconciling them to Himself. He is bringing us into a loving relationship with God. All of this is part of His grand program of redemption, and recreation. Once we walked in the Garden with God, now He wants to walk with us through this life and forevermore after this. But fellowship with God requires holiness – it requires repentance. That is what God is calling on them, and on us, His children to do day by day.

3:21-22 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. [22] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Jesus finishes the letter with another wonderful promise that is also grounded in the covenant of creation. Mankind was made to rule the earth, to represent God as His image bearers here on earth. He is now promises that we will reign with Him. This is a HUGE deal. And note what its all hinged upon – the fact that He has already conquered (the resurrection) and that He is already reigning even now.

You see, Revelation helps us understand that Jesus has indeed come into His kingdom, He is reigning now – not simply spiritually in the hearts and minds of believers, but over all the created order. His kingdom is not an ethereal idea that simply illumines our hearts and minds, it is a reality.

We are called to be faithful witnesses as He is faithful. Witnesses of an invisible kingdom, declaring that which is invisible to those who are blinded by their sin and desperately need to be reconciled to their Creator.

This requires faith that isn’t lukewarm. You see the incongruity here. Those who are concerned primarily with the treasure of this earth will never make a difference for the kingdom of God. And there is the challenge: let us rise out of our slothfulness, let us shed our old man with his desires for worldly possessions and gain. Let us repent, and put on the new man. Jesus is calling you Christian to repent for the express purpose of restoring you to Himself, both for your joy and His glory!

 

Footnotes

[i] According to manifold commentaries, but also summarized here: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/laodicea

[ii] John MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation Volume I, Pg. 135.

[iii] Ramsay, Pg.’s 422-423.

[iv] MacArthur, Pg. 135.

[v] Peter Gentry – this came from notes in my Bible’s margin, and I believe he said this at a Bunyan Conference in 2014.

[vi] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 91.

[vii] As quoted by Rev. Ian Hamilton: http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/articles/cross-of-christ.php

 

Study Notes for Revelation 2:12-17 the church @Pergamum

Below are my notes on the letter to the church at Pergamum. I will also note that I’ve included and excursus into the Binding of Satan below which may prove helpful for future reference.

To the Church in Pergamum

Pergamum was the capital of Asia. It has been so for some 250 years before this time (per MacArthur), and had been its own kingdom until about 133 B.C. when its final king died, and he bequeathed his kingdom to the Romans.

Hendricksen gives us some scope to the city of Pergamum:

The city was located upon a huge rocky hill which, as it were, plants its foot upon the great surrounding valley. The Romans made it the capital of the province of Asia…Here were to be seen the many pagan altars and the great altar to Zeus. All these things may have been I the mind of Christ when He called Pergamum the place ‘where Satan dwells.’ Yet, it seems to us that the obvious purpose of the Author is to direct our attention to the fact that Pergamum was the capital of the province and, as such, also the center of emperor-worship.[i]

The city was about 100 miles north of Ephesus and lay 15 miles inland from the Aegean – so it wasn’t a port city like Smyrna and Ephesus. Pliny wrote about how magnificent it was, and MacArthur notes that famous archeologist William Ramsay declared it to be a majestic city sitting atop the gigantic rock formation.

The city boasted a library only second to the famous library of Alexandria, with over 200,000 handwritten volumes. A third century B.C. king of Pergamum even tried to lure the librarian from Alexandria away to run their collection, but the Egyptian king caught wind of it and retaliated by cutting off the export of papyrus to the Asian city!

“Out of necessity, the Pergamenes developed parchment, made of treated animal skins, for use as writing material. Though parchment was actually known from a thousand years earlier in Egypt, the Pergamenes were responsible for its widespread use in the ancient world. In fact, the word parchment may derive from a form of the word Pergamum.[ii]

2:12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.

In chapter one (vs. 16) we see that Jesus is described as the one who had a sword protruding from his mouth. When we discussed this in the class setting, we came to the conclusion that the sword was the word of God. The fact that it emanated from the mouth of Jesus made a great deal of sense in that the inspired Word is that which came from Jesus.

The author of Hebrews, himself inspired by the Spirit, said this:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. [13] And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Matthew Henry sees the connection here as well and says this:

(1.) The word of God is a sword; it is a weapon both offensive and defensive, it is, in the hand of God, able to slay both sin and sinners. (2.) It is a sharp sword. No heart is so hard but it is able to cut it; it can divide asunder between the soul and the spirit, that is, between the soul and those sinful habits that by custom have become another soul, or seem to be essential to it. (3.) It is a sword with two edges; it turns and cuts every way. There is the edge of the law against the transgressors of that dispensation, and the edge of the gospel against the despisers of that dispensation; there is an edge to make a wound, and an edge to open a festered wound in order to its healing. There is no escaping the edge of this sword: if you turn aside to the right hand, it has an edge on that side; if on the left hand, you fall upon the edge of the sword on that side; it turns every way.

Of course the sharp two-edged sword is familiar to us now. But perhaps equally interesting is how Hebrews describes the all-knowing nature of the Lord. He says, “…no creature is hidden from his sight.” In a similar way we read earlier that Jesus was described as having eyes, “like a flame of fire” (1:14). Those eyes are all-seeing, and, as the writer of Hebrews says, all will be “exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Jesus himself said, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

I’m pointing this out because, while this is apocalyptic literature, the way in which Jesus is described – his attributes, his authority, and his actions are consistent across the canon of scripture.

2:13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.

Here is the commendation of the church at Pergamum. They have held fast the name of Jesus and didn’t deny the faith even in the midst of execution.

Note how Jesus describes their location as “where Satan’s throne is.” And that the result is that Christians – notably this man Antipas – have died on behalf of the name of Jesus. There are two points I want us to understand about this:

Satan’s Driving Motivation

  1. Satan has always sought to kill those people who are the offspring of Eve. He delights in killing the Lord’s elect. For as God said to the devil in Genesis:

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. [15] I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)

Now Jesus has been bruised for us, but He has leveled the fatal blow – the headshot – to Satan. Therefore Satan’s destiny has been set – his power already diminished, and he will soon be permanently cast into outer darkness.

Satan’s Throne and His Power

  1. Satan’s “throne” may be here on earth, but it is not a throne of sovereignty. He “rules” in a subordinate sense, not an ultimate sense. He is roaming the earth seeking those whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8), but his freedom is subordinate to God’s sovereign power and control. Many people get tripped up on the traditional Amillennial idea that of Satan being bound “bound” from deceiving the nations right now (Revelation 20:3). This is perhaps because they cast their own ideas about what it means to be “bound” onto the Biblical text. They point to all the terrible things going on in the world and to other texts like this where Satan is characterized as ruling in some sense, and they say, “Hey, there’s simply no way he is “bound” right now.”

But perhaps the Amillenial view is closer to the correct view than they might realize, and that we live right now in the millennium. If this is true, then Satan is bound. But how is he bound? He is “bound” from “deceiving the nations.” The Bible never says he is bound from doing evil and working to kill the offspring of Eve! It simply asserts that he no longer has the ability to withstand the unbridled power of the Holy Spirit. Before the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus, the entire world save a few was characterized by darkness and idol worship. Now the gospel is saving souls and Satan, though powerful and devouring those whom he can, is ultimately unable to tamp out the gospel or keep the world in darkness.

Excursus

Now – a note on this front – I understand the difficulties here with what I’ve said about the nature of Satan being “bound.” Not the least of these difficulties comes from the passage in Revelation 20 itself, namely that Satan is characterized as being thrown in a “pit” which is “shut” so that “he might not deceive the nations” until the millennial period is over. That certainly sounds like a complete cutting off of his freedom!

But here I will lean on greater exegetical minds than my own to explain in much more detail what is going on in this passage. Namely, I want to lean on G.K. Beale’s mind, who has what I consider to be the most clear understanding of the passage, and for the sake of reference in the future I will cite several of his remarks here on the passage in question, Revelation 20:1-6. This may seem to be getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but I believe that the book is a uniform whole. There are concepts throughout the book that I will continually bring up, and I want to explain where my “assumptions” are coming from. I think that putting some of these thoughts to rest early in our study could help us understand the book more clearly as we go along. Here are some of Beale’s exegetical notes:

The “key of the abyss” in 20:1 is similar to the keys in chs. 1, 3, 6 and 9, especially chs. 6 and 9, which all pertain to realities during the church age. The “abyss” in 9:1-2 and 20:1 is probably a synonym for “death and Hades” in 1:18 and 6:8…

As in 6:8 and 9:1-2, so in 20:1-3 the Satanic realm comes under Christ’s authority, which is executed by a mediating angel…

If we have been correct in generally identifying 20:1 with the preceding “key” passages, which concern inter-advent realities, then the binding and the millennium are best understood as Christ’s authority restraining the devil in some manner during the church age.

This means tat the restraint of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection. If so, the binding, expulsion, and fall of Stan can be seen in other NT passages that affirm with the same terms (“bind”, “cast” etc.) that the decisive defeat of the devil occurred at Christ’s death and resurrection (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27; Luke 10:17-10; John 12:31-33; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). More precisely, the binding was probably inaugurated during Christ’s ministry, which is more the focus of texts such as Matthew 12:29, Mark 3:27, and Luke 10:17-19. Satan’s binding was climatically put in motion immediately after Christ’s resurrection, and it lasts throughout most of the age between Christ’s first and second comings.

But now what about the nature of the binding? How is this defined etc.?

Many commentators conclude that the metaphors of verses 1-3 (in ch. 20) refer to al complete cessation of the devil’s influence on earth, sometimes basing this on such texts as 2 Cor. 4:3-4, 11:14; Eph. 2:2; 2 Tim. 2:26; and 1 Peter 5:8. But the “binding of Satan in Mark 3:27 (= Matt. 12:29) does not restrict all his activities but highlights the fact that Jesus is sovereign over him and his demonic forces. Therefore, context, and not the metaphor by itself, must determine what degree of restriction is intended. That Stan is “cast out” by Christ’s death does not restrict Satan in every way. Rather, it keeps him from preventing “all people” throughout the earth being drawn to Jesus (John 12:31-32). “Sealing” may connote an absolute incarceration, but it could just as well connote the general idea of “authority over,” which is its primary meaning also in Daniel 6:17 and Matthew 27:66 (though the context of the latter pertains to absolute confinement). God’s “seal” on Christians does not protect them in every sense but only in a spiritual, salvific manner, since they suffer from persecution in various physical ways (see on 7:3; 9:4). Conversely, God’s seal on Satan prevents him from harming the salvific security of the true church, though he can harm it physically.

Now Beale continues, and gives several pages of the nature of the binding and more depth is added to his argument. But I will finish with one last excerpt that I think makes a very strong case, so long as you agree with the recapitulation view of the book of Revelation (which I do).

If our understanding of the disjunctive temporal relation of 20:1-6 to 19:11-21 (that 20:1-6 actually comes chronologically before 19:11-21) and our view of the “keys” are correct, then Christ’s work of restraining the devil’s ability to “deceive” is not a complete curtailment of all the devil’s activities but only a restraint on his deceiving activities. 9:1-10 especially suggests this. The opening of the “abyss” with a key there results in demonic deception and oppression of unbelievers “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Therefore, the locking up of the “abyss” in 20:1-3 may convey the idea that Satan and his hordes cannot be on the loose to deceive those “who did not receive the mark (of the beast) on their foreheads.” 9:1-10 and 20:1-3 are synchronous and portray those whom Satan is permitted to deceive and those whom he is not permitted to deceive.

I hope this extended series of excerpts serves as a thought provoking adventure into the text. I don’t want to confuse anyone, but rather to offer some more depth to the arguments and viewpoints I’m offering on a Sunday morning.

End Excursus

2:14-15 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. [15] So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Now comes the accusation. The church has followed the way of Balak and in a similar way there’s also a group of them who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

Balaam was a character from the OT and we learn about him and his betrayal of the Israelites in the book of Numbers. He was asked by a foreign King – Balak, king of Moab – to curse the Israelites so that they could be overcome in battle. The Lord intervened and stopped Balaam on in his tracks on his way to meet with the king:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. [23] And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. (Numbers 22:22-23)

God had actually given him permission to go only if the men sent from Balak asked him again to come with them. But apparently Balaam couldn’t control his eagerness for the journey and set off on his own accord.[iii]

Balaam ended up being allowed to go to the king, but when he opened his mouth to curse the Israelites at the request of Balak, he could not curse them. Instead he spoke only what God had told him to speak. But later on, Balaam, “encouraged Israel to sin through engaging in idolatry and immorality.”[iv]

As Greg Beale describes, “Balaam’s name became a biblical catch-word for false teachers who for financial gain sought to influence God’s people to engage in ungodly practices (Deuteronomy 23:4; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15; Jude 11).”[v]

Peter mentions this in his second epistle when describing false teachers:

Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, [16] but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:15-16)

So there were parts of the church who had been following false teachers motivated out of a desire for wealth and power.

Jesus also mentions that this church has, “some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Who are these people? John MacArthur explains well and is worth quoting at length:

The phrase “in the same way” indicates that the teaching of the Nicolaitans led to the same wicked behavior as that of the followers of Balaam…the Nicolaitans derived their name from Nicholas, one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of the food in Acts 6. Where he became an apostate (as some of the early church fathers believed) or the Nicolaitans, his followers, perverted his teachings is not known. Abusing biblical teaching on Christian liberty, the Nicolaitans also taught that Christians could participate in pagan orgies. They seduced the church with immorality and idolatry.

The majority of the believers at Pergamum did not participate in the errors of either heretical group. They remained steadfastly loyal to Christ and the Christian faith. But by tolerating the groups and refusing to exercise church discipline, they shared in their guild, which brought the Lord’s judgment.[vi]

This kind of thing scares me to death because as a church in the modern era, we often refuse to exercise church discipline. The church is seen as a club, but not as an authoritative body of believers. If someone commits a sin and wrongs others in the church, or is in grave error from a teaching standpoint and refuses to repent of that error, that person generally just leaves and goes to another church. We are such a mobile society now that the idea of being tied down to a local body of believers who have authority to admonish individuals, is something that is far from the mindset of many in the modern Christian church.

Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry says, “Though the church, as such, has no power to punish the persons of men, either for heresy or immorality, with corporal penalties, yet it has power to exclude them from its communion; and, if it do not so, Christ, the head and lawgiver of the church, will be displeased with it.”

One only need look at the fall of Mark Driscoll in Seattle to see how effective a local body can be when functioning correctly. Mark had been off the reservation for a while, and finally the local elder board at his church confronted him about his attitude and his speech and he stepped down. Now this is a nationally known figure. He had a giant ministry that spanned over a network of churches and reached tens of thousands of people. Yet, he was subject to the local body of believers.

Today we need to have local churches that function in this way.

2:16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. [17] He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’

Here is the call to repent followed by the description of the consequences to follow if they do not repent – namely that the Son of God will “war against them with the sword of (his) mouth.”

What does it meant to have God “war against” you? If the sword is the word of God, it is evident they will be judged by the truth that is in that word. As I mentioned before, these churches no longer stand – only the church at Smyrna exists in a city that still stands.

What came to my mind as best showcasing the truth of this is what Jesus says in John 5:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

Note the close connection between hearing and believing (obeying the word – obeying the gospel) and judgment.

Now secondly note how the when he calls on them to hear what he’s saying – using the familiar phrase, “he who has an ear to hear let him here” – he says that it is the “Spirit” who is speaking. What can He mean by this? Isn’t it Jesus who is speaking?

The answer to this question is that Jesus and the Spirit are of the same mind. Before Jesus left this earth He promised that the Spirit would come to lead (them – the disciples of Jesus) into all truth:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (John 16:13).

The famous Princeton theologian Geerhardus Vos once spoke of the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit in the following way:

…the union effected between him and the Spirit and through the Spirit and believers, acquires the character of an organic mystical union, so that to be in the Spirit is to be in Christ.[vii]

So they are always on the same page. Jesus’ words are the Spirit’s words.

Now the next thing we read is the promise of eternal reward to the one who conquers. Like the other letters, the promise to those Christians who conquer is eternal life with the Father. The neat thing about reading these letters and studying them closely is that we are given the privilege of seeing the different ways in which Jesus describes the splendor of eternity. Here he talks about “hidden manna” and a “white stone.”

Now as you might recall, manna is bread, and in the Bible you’ll see time and again how bread represents sustenance. It represents God’s provision for men. Namely in the OT God provided manna from heaven to the Israelites, and in the NT Jesus called himself the “bread of life.”

Furthermore, interestingly, Jewish tradition talks of how Jeremiah hid some manna in the ark before the temple was destroyed and “that it would be revealed again when the Messiah came” (cf. Exodus 16:32 and 2 Maccabees 2:4-7 – see Beale).

Beale remarks on the meaning here:

Here the idea of the manna may have come to mind because of the preceding meditation on Israel’s confrontation with Balaam in their wilderness journey. Israel should have relied on God’s heavenly food for their sustenance rather than partaking of idolatrous food, and the church will partake of heavenly manna if it does not compromise in the same way.[viii]

Hendricksen hints at Jesus being the hidden manna, and personally that makes the most sense to me. Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT type – He brings satisfaction of a more ultimate kind, and a rest which only comes from Him alone (Hebrews). He is also our ultimate reward.

Now with regard to the white stone, there are a number of theories. I think we don’t have to come down on one thing or another. But George Ladd says:

A white stone (in the ancient world) signified acquittal by a jury, a black stone condemnation. White stones were used as tickets of admission to public festivals. This meaning fits the context best. The white stone is a symbol of admission to the messianic feast.

Whereas Hendricksen says that there are only two possibilities in his research.

The first is that the stone represents the person himself – “just as in Israel the twelve tribes were represented by twelve precious stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:15-21). Now this stone is white. This indicates holiness, beauty, glory…the stone itself symbolized durability, imperishability. The white stone, therefore, indicates a being, free form guilt and cleansed of all sin, and abiding in this state for ever and ever.

The second interpretation the pellucid, precious stone – a diamond? – is inscribed with the name of Christ. Receiving this stone with its new name means that in glory the conqueror receives a revelation of the sweetness of fellowship with Christ – in His new character, as newly crowned Mediator – a fellowship which only those who receive it can appreciate.

Interestingly Hendricksen gives pages of arguments in favor of each possibility. I’m not sure that it’s all that important to nail down an opinion about what the white stone means. But I think that it generally symbolizes the uniqueness of the individual relationship with God, and reward that each person has for following Christ. We are all one body, but it’s a body made up of individuals. And here Jesus is saying that He knows us all by name, He has called specific people to life according to His eternal hidden purposes. And the gifts of God are indeed irrevocable, and eternal.

Conclusion: Doctrine Matters

So what can we say about this church? What are we to learn from its mistakes and its commendation?

Many are quick to call this the “worldly church” because of its compromise with the world. Perhaps a better moniker would be the “compromising church” or “the timid church.”

What is so scary about this church is that, while they loved the Lord, they didn’t love him enough to guard their church from compromise. They didn’t love him – or each other – enough to reject false teaching, or admonish and discipline those who were led astray by false teaching.

Doctrine matters. If we are not firmly rooted in the truth of God’s Word we will be easily misled. The entire church in Pergamum was admonished for the actions of a few people. And if we are not firm in our convictions, we’ll tolerate the infiltration of false doctrine in our churches. I’m not just speaking about the church as a whole (The universal church), but more particularly our church – our local body of believers. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to recognize and reject unorthodox teaching from Mark Driscoll, or Rob Bell, than it is to gently approach the Sunday school teacher here in our church for wrongly interpreting the word of God.

Yet we are called to do just that. But how are we to do that if we are not first grounded in what is right and true? This is a call for both understanding, and for courage and purity in the local body.

 

[i] Hendricksen, Pg. 66.

[ii] MacArthur, Pg. 84-85. He has a good bit of insight on the background of the city here, and quotes William Ramsay’s book ‘The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia’, which is an old book itself! Ramsay was one of the most renowned archeologists of the last 150 years.

[iii] Matthew Henry Notes: “God gave him leave to go if the men called him, but he was so fond of the journey that we do not find he staid for their calling him, but he himself rose up in the morning, got everything ready with all speed, and went with the princes of Moab, who were proud enough that they had carried their point. The apostle describes Balaam’s sin here to be that he ran greedily into an error for reward, Jude 1:11.”

[iv] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[v] Beale, shorter commentary on Revelation, Pg. 66.

[vi] MacArthur, Volume I, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 89.

[vii] Danny Olinger, ‘A Geerhardus Vos Anthology’, Pg. 323.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 252.

Study Notes: Revelation 1:9-16

Here are the notes from today’s lesson Revelation 1:9-16

The main theme in these verses is the character and appearance of the son of man – there are strong ties to Exodus 19, Daniel 7, as well as Daniel 10 (particularly verse 6), and Zechariah 4 (the lampstands).  I hope you enjoy!

1:9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Unity in the Kingdom

We have here the obvious beginning of a new section of the text. Now it is John speaking again, and he begins by saying he is a “brother and partner” in their trials – their “tribulation.” He is a partner in both their tribulation and also in the kingdom. If this doesn’t scream, “inaugurated eschatology” I don’t know what does…

John is already enduring tribulation – and he wants them to know that they aren’t alone.

Indeed, John’s humility must have been a great comfort to them. For as John MacArthur says:

John was an apostle, a member of the inner circle of the twelve along with Peter and James, and the human author of a gospel and three epistles. Yet he humbly identified himself simply as “your brother.” He did not write as one impressed with his authority as an apostle, commanding, exhorting, or defining doctrine, but as an eyewitness to the revelation of Jesus Christ that begins to unfold with this vision.[i]

John also reminds them that they are partners, not only in tribulation, but also in “the kingdom.” He is speaking in the present tense, by the way. He is speaking about the kingdom of God, which John considers as already existing and as having been ushered in at our Lord’s resurrection.

Furthermore, he says that he is with them in “patient endurance that are in Jesus.” Endurance that is a fruit of being “in Jesus.” All of these descriptors are modified by this phrase “in Jesus.”

Listen to Beale explain this so clearly:

John and his community are people who even now reign together in Jesus’ kingdom. But this is a kingdom unanticipated by the majority of Jews. The exercise of rule in this kingdom begins and continues only as one faithfully endures tribulation. This is a formula for kingship: faithful endurance through tribulation is the means by which one reigns in the present with Jesus. Believers are not mere subjects in Christ’s kingdom. “Fellow partaker” underscores the active involvement of saints not only enduring tribulation, but also in reigning in the midst of tribulation.[ii]

Hanging Out on Patmos

Next we learn where John is/was when he saw the visions. Most of the commentators seem to think he either wrote part of the vision down on the island, or later afterward.

The island itself wasn’t a very hospitable place. MacArthur describes it as, “a barren, volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, at its extremities about ten miles long and give to six miles wide, located some forty miles offshore from Miletus (a city in Asia Minor about thirty miles south of Ephesus; cf. Acts 20:15-17).”[iii]

Ladd says it was, “a bare, rocky volcanic island with hills rising to about a thousand feet. There are references in Roman literature to support the view that such islands were used for the banishment of political offenders. There is no evidence that John’s exile was any part of a general persecution of the church in either Rome or Asia.”[iv]

Thomas Brooks once used the island to as analogy to the human heart:

Our hearts naturally are like the isle of Patmos, which is so barren of any good, that nothing will grow but in earth that is brought from other places; yet Christ can make them like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not.[v]

We don’t know for certain exactly why John is on Patmos, except that it is in connection with His service to our Lord and likely the spread of the gospel.

1:10-11 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet [11] saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

Lord’s Day

Because of the Lord’s resurrection coming on the first day of the week – Sunday, as we call it now – the people of the early church began to gather in celebration on that day and eat and fellowship together. It is likely that when John refers here to the “Lord’s Day” he is not referring to the scriptural concept of the eschatological “day of the Lord”, but rather to that day which Christ followers had set aside to celebrate their Lord’s resurrection and victory over death and sin.[vi]

That they celebrated the resurrection day was closely tied to their motive to overcome trials. If Jesus overcame, and they were “in” Jesus, then they too could overcome. Jim Hamilton magnificently states that…

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can face suffering, imprisonment, testing, and tribulation without fear. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can be faithful unto death (cf. 2:20). The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that though we suffer we will not be crushed, though we are tested we will not fail, though we face tribulation we will be preserved, though we die we will rise.[vii]

In the Spirit

Beale notes that John’s use of the phrase “in the Spirit” is similar to Ezekiel’s use of that same phrase to connote a vision from God. He then mentions that behind him he hears a loud trumpet-like voice, which reminds us a little of God’s revelation to Moses. One such example is:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

When God speaks to His prophets in this way, it seems like there is little room for doubting who it is that is speaking! I might just add there that this isn’t the way in which false angels/demons or Satan speaks. He doesn’t have that majestic presence that God does. God alone is ruler and proclaimed as such by all of heaven. His voice is described by Ezekiel in this way:

And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. (Ezekiel 43:2)

We’ll see this same language used in just a few more verses (1:15).

Write What You See to the Churches

John is commanded to write what he sees down in a book. Similar to the OT prophets who were often commanded to write down what they had seen (Beale, for example, cites Ex. 17:4; Is. 30:8, Jer. 37:2 – in the LXX[viii] – and so forth), and often those writing contained judgments toward Israel. So the reader who might have studied the OT might have been already catching a hint of what’s to come by way of judgment (cf. Beale).

Now we see that Jesus has asked John to write all the things he is seeing down on a book or scroll to be sent to these seven churches. We’ve spent some time already discussing the churches, the importance of the number seven, and some of the viewpoints surrounding different views on why these specific churches were mentioned.

One unique view is that the order of the churches mentioned here is significant because it corresponds to a specific time frame in history. This is known as the “historist” view. Once again Beale give a nice overview that I find worth citing in the full:

There is apparently no significant to the order in which the different churches are addressed, although some have attempted to say that it foreshadows the church age after John: the spiritual condition of the seven churches prophetically represents seven successive stages in church history. However, there is no indication of such a prophetic intention nor does church history attest to any such pattern. What is likely is that the number “seven” refers to the church universal in both a geographical and temporal sense and that the conclusion of each letter extends its application to all the churches. Therefore, what we find in the letters is potentially relevant for the church of every time and place.[ix]

I won’t here take the time to describe each church and what we know about them, because we’ll get a chance to look at that when we get to each letter specifically.

1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, [13] 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.

Here John turns around and sees the voice and when he does he sees seven golden lampstands. Later we’ll find that those lampstands are the seven churches. We’ll discuss that more again when we talk about verse 20. But let me just quote from Jim Hamilton on this:

The church is not a building but believers who are “living stones” (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Zechariah’s lampstand, which symbolized the presence of God in the temple, is fulfilled by the seven lampstands of Revelation, which symbolizes God’s presence in the seven churches to whom John writes. Zechariah’s “two sons of oil,” Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the royal descendant of David, are fulfilled in Jesus, who stands among the lampstands as God’s presence in his church. Jesus himself fills the offices of High Priest and High King of Israel. The vision of the lampstand and the two olive trees in Zechariah guaranteed that God would empower the rebuilding of the temple. Similarly, John’s vision of Jesus among the lampstands guarantees that God will accomplish his purpose in the building of the Church.[x]

Then he says that in the midst of the lampstands there was “one like a son of man.” When you hear the phrase “son of man” whom do you think of? Jesus. This was Jesus’ own favorite self-designation and it comes from the book of Daniel, which we’ve seen in previous weeks.

Jesus is described as “clothed with a long robe” and with “a golden sash around his chest.”

I was really interested in why He would be described like this, until George Ladd helped point me in the right direction: “this was the garb of the high priest (Ex. 28:4, 39:29). However, prophets could be similarly garbed (Zech. 3:4), so it is not clear whether this is intended to designate specifically our Lord’s high priesthood, or merely the dignity of his person.”[xi]

Beale mentions that the garb He is wearing could indicate a kingly or priestly function, but because of the scene – which seems to be a temple or church-like picture – the likelihood is that its priestly garb.

The overarching idea seems to be that Jesus is both priest and king. The “son of man” reference connotes Daniel 7’s clear royal kingship emphasis, but the garb is priestly it seems. Thus, like the passage in Zechariah 4 that describes the lampstands, there are two olive trees, one is the high priest and the other is the king. Jesus is both, and walks among his people keeping them secure and ensuring that He will finish the work He began. 

1:14-15 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, [15] his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

Now I don’t want to “unweave the rainbow”[xii] here, but let’s concisely examine the descriptors used here of Jesus – many of which are taken from either Daniel 7, or Daniel 10.

The passage in Daniel 10 isn’t one we’ve examined yet. The prophet had a terrifying vision of a man, and, as Jim Hamilton puts it, “Daniels vision have to do with the son of man who receives an eternal kingdom, and in Daniel 10:14 Daniel encountered a man from Heaven who told him that he ‘came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.’”[xiii]

The description of this man who spoke to Daniel is found in verses 5 and 6:

I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. [6] His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. (Daniel 10:5-6)

So John is greatly influenced in his descriptors by the vision of Daniel. Remember that Daniel was told to “seal up” the vision he saw (Daniel 12:4), whereas John is instructed to not seal up the vision (Revelation 22:10). In other words, as Hamilton says, “what was prophesied by Daniel is fulfilled in Revelation.” [xiv]

Now back to Revelation 1, the white hairs on Jesus’ head are also a picture from Daniel, but in Daniel it is the Ancient of Days (the Father) who has the white hair. Jesus, the Son of Man, is now described in this way. For as Ladd says, John used them (the hair) to show that Christ shares eternal existence with the Father.”[xv]

He has eyes that are described as a “flame of fire”, which Beale and others say could symbolize judgment, though Mounce says, “It expresses the penetrating insight of the one who is sovereign, not only over the seven churches, but over the course of history itself.”[xvi]

Ladd sees both ideas in the description of His eyes and says, “We may conclude that it symbolized omniscience combined with holy wrath directed against all that is unholy.”

The “burnished bronze” feet of the Lord which are described as having been “refined in a furnace” could describe the moral purity of Christ.

1:16 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.

The idea of Jesus holding the seven stars in his hand we will come back to in a bit when we look at verse 20.

We read that issuing from the mouth of the Son of Man there is a two-edged sword – and its “sharp.” It’s sharpness connotes effectiveness. This isn’t a dull blade – it will accomplish what it seeks to do:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

This undoubtedly is speaking of the Word of God. Jesus himself is the Word, and his Gospel goes out among the people of this world and conquers their hearts.

Johnson sees an interesting connection between the two reasons why Israel first wanted a king, and the function of Jesus as Warrior and Judge:

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, [20] that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

Johnson says, “Although Saul failed to demonstrate either wise justice or courage in battle, David exemplified the king as a bold warrior and Solomon, the king as a wise judge. Yet David and everyone in his dynasty fell short of David’s poetic profile of the perfect ruler (2 Samuel 23:1-7) – until Jesus, the Son of Man, who is supremely wise in judgment and fierce in battle.”[xvii]

Lastly, John says that Jesus’ face was “like the sun shining in full strength.” Undoubtedly this is speaking to the magnificent glory of the Lord Jesus.

I couldn’t help but remember the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of the reflected glory of the Father onto the face of Moses. Moses’ face would just shine for days after meeting with God. So much so, that he had to wear a veil to keep from blinding the people.

Paul makes a connection between the glory which Moses beheld which was fleeting, and that which we behold in the Word of God, which actually causes us to burn brighter with the rays of the Lord’s light. Of course the key verse in the passage is:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

And in a way, I think it’s fitting to end this section thinking of this verse because that’s what we’re doing now. We’re beholding the glory of the Lord as mediated through His word.

Sometimes I’m going to be able to make a direct application – especially with the letters to the churches coming up. We’ll be able to examine those and examine our own lives to make sure we’re living in accordance with God’s Word.

However, there are other times, like today, where we are simply “beholding.” We simply read and admire the glory of the Lord knowing that it isn’t a waste of time to meditate on His character and attributes. In fact, it changes us significantly by having an impact on how we view ourselves, His care for us, and His power and care over all history.

Footnotes

[i] MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation, Volume I, Pg. 40.

[ii] Beale, (the longer commentary) Pg. 201.

[iii] MacArthur, Volume I, Pg. 41.

[iv] Ladd, Pg. 30.

[v] Brooks, ‘Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks’, Pg.’s 5-6.

[vi] See esp. Ladd Pg. 31, and MacArthur pg. 41 for why the phrasing of this indicates John is speaking of “Sunday” and not the eschatological “day of the Lord.”

[vii] Jim Hamilton, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 41.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 203.

[ix] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 204.

[x] Hamilton, Pg. 46.

[xi] Ladd, Pg.’s 32-33.

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 78.

[xiii] Hamilton, Pg. 47.

[xiv] Hamilton, Pg. 48.

[xv] Ladd, Pg. 33.

[xvi] Mounce, Pg. 79.

[xvii] Johnson, Pg. 59.

Introduction (and Prologue) to Revelation: Part 6

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

PJ

The Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion to the Prologue

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

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

Footnotes 

[i] Johnson, pg. 26

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

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

[iv] Beale, Pg. 112.

[v] Beale, Pg. 135.

[vi] Beale, Pg. 140.

[vii] Beale, Pg. 141.

[viii] Beale, Pg. 145.

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

 

[x] Beale, Pg. 182.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

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

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

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

The Already/Not Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beale puts it this way:

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

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

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

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

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

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

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

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

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

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

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Millennium

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

Amillennialism

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

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

John Frame describes it:

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

R.C. Sproul adds…

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

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

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

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

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

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

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

Postmillennialism 

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

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

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

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094

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