September 8, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:55 in the audio file.
Or, Everyone’s Problem with the Prophecy in This Book
One potent way to mess with your enemies is to get your enemies to fight with each other. Give the opposing soldiers something to bicker about between themselves, it should at least distract them. Jesus told the scribes that a house divided couldn’t stand (Mark 3:25), and Abraham Lincoln borrowed the same metaphor. Even Gandalf, in The Hobbit, tricked the trolls into arguing themselves until sunrise when they turned to stone.
I have not discovered secret demon plans to get Christians fighting with each other about the meaning of the book of Revelation, but there has been a lot of infighting among professing believers that has at least distracted us from the real battle. The book of Revelation is a warning against compromise with the world, a call to repentance in the church, and an encouragement that Jesus is worthy to be praised and will bring His plan to consummation at the right time. But believers often display very worldly manners when arguing with each other about what their manner of life in the world should be. The old joke is, the millennium is one-thousand years of peace that Christians love to fight about.
The positive angle to this, and it is really positive, is that there are actually people who care about the truth enough to try to know it and get others to know it. The negatives, though, are also really negative, and we miss out on the blessing that the words of this prophecy promise.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)
“[B]ehold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)
Both John, who received the revelation, and Jesus, who is the subject of the revelation, promise blessing to those who hold onto the prophecy of this book. We need to get it right so that we know what to hold on to, and we need to hold on to it so that we can be #blessed. If your understanding of Revelation and your system of eschatology do not make you more blessed, and/or if you can’t talk about them in a way that blesses others, then something is very wrong.
Also, there is a severe warning to those who mess with the words of Revelation.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
Revelation is the last word of God, that is, the last inspired Scripture. We’ve already finished studying the beginning of the story in Genesis, now we start the end of the story in Revelation. The threats in verses 18-19 are often understood as claims to have additional words of God, or as denials of what has been received as words of God. Don’t add sentences to Scripture, and don’t strike through sentences that are there. That is appropriate application. But at the end of the prophecy of this book, isn’t it also possible that “adding” could come in faulty interpretation, and likewise “taking away” could be a denial, or redefining of something in Revelation itself? This is more than just a lack of understanding, this is a conscious commitment to read the Bible wrongly. Reading rightly is important.
That said, as we begin our hearing and keeping for blessing through the prophecy of this book, I plan to avoid using two phrases in particular, and one larger avoidance in general. You should not hear me say, “If you just read your Bible, ….” There are contexts where such a statement works, but is not our church context. In a discussion with someone who does not acknowledge the authority of the Bible, we show our submission to God’s Word by calling attention to the need to read it. That’s the right kind of mettlesomeness. Even in certain religious conversations where some other authority is exalted, maybe another document (a church creed, catechism, confession) or tradition (official or experiential), pointing to the Bible above them all may be valuable. But I am going to give the benefit of the doubt that you want to know what the Bible teaches, and that if you disagree, you are doing it from and with Scripture.
I also do not plan to use the word “literal” hardly ever in this study. It does not seem to have the value it once did, if it ever did. I am committed to what is usually called a grammatical-historical interpretation of God’s Word, which means that figures of speech should literally be understood as figures of speech. This approach is also suspicious of turning too many things into symbols that may not be, while also acknowledging that some language is symbolic. Prophetic, apocalyptic material often uses dramatic images, and there may be meaning that is not immediately grasped by the first audience that is nonetheless true. But in all of “the prophecy in this book” I intend to ask interpretive questions that refer to those levels without saying “literally” the whole time.
In general, I do hope to avoid taping together and then torching straw men. We do not all agree on what Revelation refers to, and I aim to understand and interact with the positions I do not believe to be true in such a way that would persuade (some of) you to give up your errors. Ha.
There are disagreements among professing Christians regarding what in the world Revelation is talking about. As I’ve been reading Revelation and reading introduction material about Revelation and the different approaches that are usually taken to this book, I’ve come to think that there is basically one problem that everyone has with this prophecy. Assuming that people accept Revelation as God’s Word and that it is intended as revelation, all of those people have the same fundamental question.
Before I state what I think that shared problem is, and then introduce four different ways of answering the question, please note that the words of this book are not for scholars per se, not for academic theologians, not for professional pastors. This prophecy is for the church, for the Christians in the church, as immediately accounted for in the seven local churches that Jesus addresses in Revelation 2-3. John was a pastor. He sounds an alarm as a shepherd, not as Chicken Little. This isn’t to say that everything is immediately easy to understand, or that everyone is able to understand it equally regardless of their Bible knowledge or listening/reading ability. But the ones who have the problem for sake of getting the blessing are everyone.
The problem that everyone has with the prophecy of this book is that all the things that John saw and wrote about have not happened exactly the way John saw and wrote about. If he meant to encourage Christians in the latter part of the first century and early part of the second century, then didn’t his message need to be current to those days? If he meant to encourage Christians living in the latter days of world history, then didn’t his message need some more modern identifiers? The longer we go without fulfillment, the more questions arise. “The interpretive problem grows out of the fact that the End did not arrive on schedule” (Mounce).
At least four main attempts have been made to answer this problem. These four approaches have names, and characteristics, and eschatological implications, but I’ll save the names for a few minutes. The four answers are:
Some would say that in order for Revelation to be meaningful to John’s readers, the things he described necessarily needed to take place in their lifetimes. So the prophecies of this book were (almost entirely) fulfilled a long time ago. Most (not all) who interpret Revelation this way believe that John wrote during Nero’s reign (AD 54-68), and the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 is a big part of the fulfillment. The persecution John described must have been at least a little exaggerated, not quite as immense or intense as “the end of the world.” The Jewish and Roman attacks on Christians and the church were not truly global, but maybe just extensive through the Empire. For this approach, the key to understanding Revelation is that the prophecies of this book are completed.
The other three answers all deny that John’s descriptions could genuinely be satisfied by the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 or by the fall of Rome in the 4th/5th century. There must be another way to understand the descriptions.
Some would say that Revelation, as apocalyptic literature, is full of visions and symbols, so all, or at least most, of the descriptions must be figurative, if not allegorical (though that word is inflammatory in some exegetical circles). The repetition of sevens (as in the seals, bowls, trumpets) describe a cyclical outworking of the cosmic fight between good and evil in all ages. This way it applied to the early church, and to the medieval church, and to the modern church, and to the future church, but never pinpointing one place on the timeline. We should read Revelation as a thing that is happening, and not as a key to the future. The key to reading Revelation from this approach is that the prophecies are concurrent.
Others would say that Revelation is meant for the church in every age, but not necessarily in a repetitive way. There is forward movement, but each successive age (say, the Church Fathers, Medieval, Reformation, Current, etc.) of the church is found as Revelation progresses. We should read Revelation as a thing that is happening now, but we are only in a part of it. The key to reading Revelation this way is that the prophecies are consecutive.
The fourth approach answers the problem that all the things that John saw and wrote about haven’t happened as John saw and wrote about yet, but they will. The prophecy of this book, from chapter 4 (or maybe chapter 6) forward will happen in the time before Christ’s return. The key to reading Revelation is that the prophecies are coming.
Take just one example (in the commentary written by Osborne), does the “beast” in Revelation 11 refer to Nero (past)? To different leaders in other empires? The pope? Hitler? The future Antichrist (future)?
The name for the “it has happened, sort of” is Preterist, from the Latin word praeter meaning “past”) (held by numerous scholars, including non-evangelical ones, mostly promoted in the nineteenth century, and repopularized with the Christian reconstructionism movement in the 1970-80s). Most Preterists are also Post-millennialists. They believe that the victory of Christ over His enemies is being worked out now as the church eventually conquers secular society before Christ returns.
The name for the “it is happening, symbolically” is Idealist or Spiritualist (held by a few notable church fathers such as Clement—born AD 150 and Origin—AD 184 and Augustine—AD 354). The name for the “it is happening, in stages” is Historicist (held by many of the 16th century Reformers). Often these two groups are A-millennialists, seeing the fight between the church and society as an ongoing thing until the end, whenever and however “the end” actually occurs.
The name for the “it will happen” group is Futurist. They are Pre-millennialists, meaning that they think the millennial, 1000 year kingdom, reign of Christ is still to come (a position taught as early as Justin—AD 100 and Iraenaeus—AD 130). There are different kinds of Pre-millennialists, but one thing they hold in common is an expectation of all the prophecy to be fulfilled. For what it’s worth, this is usually the preference of non-scholars. All of the pastors at TEC are in this group of Futurists.
It is very possible to overstate one’s distinctions, to be overconfident in one’s position, to build straw men of those who disagree, and to be a jerk. It is possible to always find a new fulfillment in the newspaper, until tomorrow’s newspaper provides a better fit. In other words, there are a lot of ways to be wrong, and unhelpful, and uncharitable.
Every approach has challenges to answer, and each approach has some advantages. We need to read “the prophecy of this book,” drag whatever “system” we have through the verses, “keep the words” (Revelation 22:7), and humbly wait for the Lord when we’re not sure. What is sure is that the right fight is not with your brother. “Just conquer” is not over your brother.
The prophecy of this book is about the certain and supernatural return and reign of Jesus Christ the Lord. We are His people, and He is our Lord. There are some things that are already afoot because He rose from the dead, and there are things to come that give us motivation to live for Him today.
Mine is not the last word on Revelation, but Revelation is the last word from God to us for our blessing. Hear what the Spirit says to the churches for your blessing, and be a blessing to others as you talk about Revelation.
The apostle Paul also had prophetic word from the Lord about the day of the Lord, and he reminded the Thessalonians that “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). And because the future parts of our salvation are so good, here’s our job: “Therefore encouraged one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (verse 11). We are on the same team, part of the same body. Just conquer, together.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, 28, ESV)