July 19, 2020
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts around 19:55 in the audio file.
Or, Being on the Wrong Side of Prophecy
Maybe you’ve run into the buzzword argument which threatens that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. It sounds bad. It also assumes a number of things in order to have its emotional effect (which, it is entirely an emotional appeal, and possibly includes a number of logical fallacies).
To be on the wrong side of history means that you have not progressed enough to see how our fathers, and many of our neighbors, are not just old and outdated but obviously wrong, as in ignorant or prejudiced or worse. The assumption is that modern viewpoints must necessarily be more accurate. We moderns see better, we have more information, we are smarter everyday.
When it comes to certain products, there may be something to this. Only once you’ve made a thing can you test it and then improve it. It requires not only developing materials and production methods, but also knowing the purpose of the thing. Does that work with persons? Cultures?
The sin of hatred and prejudice toward men based on outward appearance and having a different skin color is a real sin, and in the middle of the last century there were numerous effects. But that sin has always been sin, and it still is sin, regardless of the colors of the hater and the hated. The answer to that sin is not progressing in our mindset, it is repentance and forgiveness and sanctification in Christ. We are not on the right side of history because we preach against hatred, we are living according to God’s Word.
The right side of history argument is often used today by those who see the ethnic conflict as a playbook for embracing homosexuality (a denial of natural relationships) and transgenderism (a denial of natural identity). We’re told that disagreement with those lifestyles/sins is equal to discrimination, to hatred, and we don’t want to end up on the wrong side of history again. Who wants future generations writing about how mean and stupid we were? The more evolved are the more accepting are the more virtuous.
In reality virtue might be being in the minority; it definitely isn’t defined by the majority. (That’s the fallacy of ad populum, arguing because of the popularity). Virtue likewise isn’t defined by one’s position on a timeline, though there are different ways to demonstrate virtue depending on when you’re living. Being right depends on a standard, and that standard is not based on percentage or by historical perspective.
I bring it up to riff off it in two more ways, two considerations of being on the wrong side of prophecy.
As Christians gathered to hear God’s Word we want both to understand prophecy for the sake of our faith and hope and obedience and blessing, and we want to understand prophecy for sake of our witness and warning to the world that they might also come to the Lord and Savior. We can be on the wrong side of prophecy by not accepting it as believers (which is not a great place to be) or by not accepting it as unbelievers (which is an even worse place, with eternal consequences).
For believers, the book of Revelation is work. I can’t remember exactly, and I didn’t do a search, but it seems like commentators regularly say “this is one of the toughest passages to interpret.” Of the commentaries I’m reading, many of them said it again about chapter 11 with the temple and the two witnesses: difficult and debated. I’d like to propose that some of those challenges arise from tying their faith behind their backs. Their faith is on the wrong side of prophecy.
I’ve said from the start of our study that everyone’s problem with the Apocalypse is that it hasn’t happened like it said, or like it seemed to us it would, or even “soon.” But most of the alternatives involve selectivity, not just in determining what is figurative and what isn’t, but in what from the visions deserves comment or explanation at all. They turn it into jambalaya, and occasionally you taste a particular flavor, but most of it is more jumble.
There are challenges no matter which side you are on. I’m working my way through the text in such a way to show my work, and my assumptions, so that you will have an example for how to read yourself (or, how not to if that’s your jam). But read the Word in way that bolsters your faith in God’s Word, because selective interpretation will lead to selective application. And if you have limited confidence in what it means, you will have limited courage in telling others, or holding fast when it gets hard.
I think the witnesses in chapter 11 are persons, rather than pictures of the church. They are witnesses who will come onto the world scene at a future point in history. But we can learn from them now, and be emboldened by their example, even though it hasn’t happened yet, because we know it will.
There is another way to be on the wrong side of prophecy: as unbelievers. Especially next week we’ll see those among the nations, as John was told to prophecy about in 10:11, who will not repent, who will not submit and worship God. The standard for the world is God’s message, the law and the prophets and the gospel as the only hope for anyone.
Verses 1-14 belong together, finishing the two visions that follow the sixth trumpet and prior to the seventh trumpet blown in verse 15. In chapter 10, John was recommissioned to prophecy by a mighty angel, and in chapter 11 we see two other prophets announcing judgment. In verses 1-6 we meet the witnesses, in verses 7-10 we see how the world responds to the witnesses, and in verses 11-14 we’ll see the outcome of their lives.
John plays another part in the prophecy, just as he ate the little scroll, now he takes out a measuring stick.
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Rise and measure the temple of God and the alter and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample on the holy city for forty-two months.
It seems to me that the majority of interpreters believe that the temple does not mean a temple, and the altar doesn’t mean altar, and the court outside isn’t a location, neither is the holy city, and the forty-two months definitely isn’t meant to be measured by a calendar. They do think the nations means not Christians, and that they will trample means something not good.
The hermeneutical argument against John’s vision of a temple being a building is that Revelation is symbolic. And, both hermeneutically and theologically, if you assume that the church has replaced Israel, then the prophecies for Israel are fulfilled by the church, and the church doesn’t have a temple. The theological argument against the temple being a real, working temple is that Jesus already died and rose again, so there is no more need for a temple (or an altar for sacrifices, as explained in Hebrews 10). For example,
“The fact that the temple prophesied in Ezekiel 40–48 includes a sacrificial system must be reinterpreted in the light of Heb. 10:1–12” (Beale)
There is also a chronological argument for why it could be a temple, if Revelation was written before AD 70, but, that position struggles to explain a number of other elements in the vision.
What about this: The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of a temple in the end times, Ezekiel 40-48, that included measuring it (chapters 40-42) and led to the restoration of the nation of Israel, as a socio-ethnic people with faith in the Messiah, not as redefined in only spiritual terms. Such a prophetic expectation provided Paul with justification for why the gospel promises can be trusted, Romans 9-11, and also explained why he saw a temple when the “man of lawlessness” came (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). Such a view fits with the sealing of the 12 tribes in Revelation 7, compared with the rest of the nations. I am persuaded that while the measuring rod isn’t primarily about determining building dimensions, it is referring to something physical (as is the temple measuring in Revelation 21:15-17).
Again, most take temple to mean believers (which, I mean, “temple” is used as an analogy for Christians in Ephesians 2:19-22), the outer court as the church from a different perspective, and then the holy city as yet another reference to the church. The difference between the worshippers around the altar and the outer court area supposedly marks the difference between the inner, spiritual life of Christians compared to their outer, physical lives. Their hearts are protected by God, but their bodies and lives may be destroyed by the world. And although the vision makes a distinction between the temple and the worshippers and the witnesses in the holy city, the symbolic understanding takes all four pieces as referring to the same group. That is interpretive jumble-aya.
The measuring is a way of showing God’s attention and favor. He favors those who are worshipping Him. That a temple is restored, even with an altar, does not require that a future generation of Jews are denying Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice. The worshippers and the witnesses know that this is the city “where their Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:8), so whatever is being offered at this altar is not necessarily atonement sacrifices. Why not an earthly altar of incense patterned after the heavenly one (Revelation 8:3)?
Those who are not worshipping are outside the temple, and they are busy attacking and destroying and will trample the holy city, they will conquer it. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire in Rome. Societies are always looking for a scapegoat, and the torment and death in the previous trumpets are too much to take, and of course they won’t think it is their own fault; they love their idols and immoralities (Revelation 9:20-21). The haters will take out their hate on the worshippers of God.
At that time, amidst the trampling, God will call for a powerful testimony.
“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
These two witnesses are the focus until the seventh trumpet sounds. Here they are introduced in connection with the worship in the holy city, given prophetic work by God for a certain amount of time (1,260 days) and with a certain flavor to their ministry (sackcloth for mourning). The timing of this three and a half years belongs with the last half of the tribulation before Christ comes.
I am frustrated by attempts to make these witnesses symbolic figures of the church. We need to get into more of their description in verses 4-6.
The imagery is fantastic, related back to a prophetic word in Zechariah, and the witnesses themselves are given powers like those of Moses and Elijah.
4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.
There are two arguments for why the two witnesses are actually just one. The first is that lampstands are used as a symbol of the churches in chapters 1-3, and, supposedly “it is unlikely that the lampstands are different here than in ch. 1” (Beale). But why? Those lampstands are identified in context (Revelation 1:20), as are these. The second argument is that these are prophetic references to priestly work and kingly work, and all the saved are priests and kings (Revelation 1:6; 5:10). These arguments do not persuade me.
Zechariah saw a similar vision of two olive trees beside one lampstand (with seven lamps) in Zechariah 4:1-14, empowered by the Lord’s Spirit (verse 6), starting from the day of small things (verse 10). But even there, the referents were identified as two human persons.
John continues his description.
5 And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. 6 They have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
If the two witnessesare the church, then the rest of the imagery is virtually unintelligible; the closest it could mean is jumbled together as a way to say that failure to listen to prophecy means bad things will happen to you. Out of the mouth of the church comes fire which would be what? Something like conviction has killed their foes? The church, as often as it has the desire, decides for draughts (no rain)…and bitter drink (bloody waters)…and plagues of discontentment? The results come from intentions, and the “church” has never produced such results.
Or, these are two future, human witnesses, in the spirit and power of Elijah and Moses, raised by up by God to make the earth-dwellers rage, such that they will attack but be turned back by the prophets. Elijah called down fire on his enemies, King Ahaziah and the two groups of fifty soldiers (2 Kings 1:10, 12), and he prayed down a draught (1 Kings 17:1). Moses turned water to blood (Exodus 7:14ff) and the other plagues (Exodus 8). Elijah and Moses also showed up with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). As for these witnesses, we will know their names at the right time. We will also find out more about them in the following verses.
The point of two witnesses, of course, is the legal requirement for a convicting testimony (Deuteronomy 19:15). The world is guilty.
They are in constant danger. They sound invincible, and, everyone is, until God has something else for them. The olive trees provide the oil for the lampstands, related to the Spirit. They are given power, sometimes translated “authority.” Their prophecy and testimony will be powerful.
The response that this understanding of the prophecy is too pedestrian, that it misses the incredible parts of the story, does not make sense to me. If anything, I’m trying to not make it sensational like end-times money-maker doom-sayers.
The powerful testimony of the witnesses comes through their fearless preaching calling for repentance, and we’ll see more about how the world responds in verses 7-14.
Jesus said that in this world we will have tribulation (John 16:33. Paul said that we are called, and privileged, to believe and suffer (Philippians 1:29). Peter said that God will restore and establish us after we have suffered for a little while (1 Peter 5:10). John said that there are cowards and there are conquerers (Revelation 21:7-8), and the conquerers conquer by faith, they have conviction of things not seen. Run to the promised joy.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2, ESV)