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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Revelation Reflections: Intro & Verse 1:1a

(I have lots of different series and things going on the blog already, I know, but as a companion activity to some memorization I'm doing that involves the book of Revelation, I decided to start writing some reflections on each verse as I go through it. I have memorized chapter 1 and so I started writing about v.1a, and it turned into a long introduction to what could, some day, become a theological and devotional type commentary (not an in-depth exegetical or overly scholarly one.) For lack of a better place to put such writings for now, they will go on my blog. Stay tuned for more N. T. Wright stuff and Baptist Faith & Message stuff.)

1:1a "The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place."

The name of the book comes from the second word of this introductory verse (actually the first word in the Greek), "apocalypse" or "revelation." It is said to be the "revelation of Jesus Christ." The temptation of a devotionally oriented commentary or sermon at this point is to declare that understanding the complex timelines and symbolism of the rest of the book isn't nearly so important as understanding that the book's main end is to reveal the person of Jesus Christ. Inasmuch as all Scripture as the inscripturated Word of God reveals God's character and points to the culmination of His redemptive work in Jesus Christ, there is nothing wrong with this idea in itself, but it's not the point of the verse here. For it goes on to read, "which God gave Him to show to His servants the things that must soon take place." It is therefore far better to read the construction as saying simply that the revelation belongs to or comes from Jesus (and more ultimately from God the Father). According to this opening verse, the content of the revelation is not Jesus per se (although He is of course the hero of the book and of all redemptive history), but rather "the things that must soon take place." The revelation is the gift of God, through the hands of Jesus Christ, to God's servants, revealing events "soon to take place."

Already two key points from this opening verse must be kept in mind going forward through the book. First, the "revelation" is just that: a revelation. An unveiling. A document intended to give insight. As we struggle to read, interpret, understand, and apply this book, comparing and contrasting different end-times schemes and doctrinal systems that attempt to deal with it consistently, we are often tempted to think that the revelation is actually a closed book that will never allow itself to be subject to successful interpretation, and that we ought therefore to give up on the task. Perhaps we should content ourselves with drawing only very broad, vague spiritual principles from the book, or simply take note of the nice things it says about Jesus and His ultimate victory over evil. There's nothing wrong with those approaches as a part of a holistic approach, but the very title of the book does not let us remain at that level. The revelation is intended to reveal specific things to the servants of God, things which we will discuss in detail.

Why do we have such difficulty, then? Has God failed to reveal His purposes with clarity? Certainly not! A couple of considerations help us here. While the Holy Spirit in a sense intends the book to speak to servants of Christ throughout the ages, John's intention in writing is to communicate certain things to specific servants of Christ in his own time. We will read more about this later on in the chapter. But we must realize that modern readers are a secondary, and not primary, audience for John. Therefore we already have one degree of distance from the text--a historical one. Another category of difficulty we face is the way the book is steeped in ancient Jewish language and symbolism. While written in Greek, it is an awkwardly Hebraic Greek, and it is employed to make vastly numerous allusions to various events, themes, and symbols in the Hebrew Scriptures, mixing the metaphors and using the ideas in new ways to express the events John saw in his visions. If we struggle to immediately understand the meaning of the symbols and metaphors, it is not because John or the Holy Spirit intended to obscure the truth from our minds' eyes, but rather because we have been poor students of the Old Testament, and particularly of the writings of the ancient Prophets. The antidote would be, therefore, more meticulous study of the Old Testament, in addition to more study of the historical context and events involving the first century churches in Asia Minor.

Second, and on a related note, the events revealed in the book are said to be events that will "soon take place." On the face of it, this would seem to indicate that the content of the book is prophetic material speaking of events which were about to happen shortly from the perspective of John's original audience. If this verse were the only time or manner in which John said something like this, it would perhaps leave room for a broader array of interpretations or implications of the word "soon," involving notions other than true temporal imminence in the normal, human sense of "soon." As we will see, though, John belabors the point of temporal imminence using several different terms and at the strategic points of the beginning and end of the book. If we see much of the revelation's content as being parallel with material in Jesus' Olivet Discourse in the latter portions of each of the three synoptic gospel accounts (as interpreters from many different schools do), this point is strengthened by Jesus' repeated insistence that the events of which He spoke would happen within a generation of His hearers, so that some who stood in His presence during His ministry would "not taste death" until they saw Him coming in His kingdom, the temple in Jerusalem destroyed by armies, etc. (cf. Matt. 24:34; Matt. 16: 20; Lk. 21:20).

This would seem to rule out approaches to the material in the rest of the book of revelation that say its contents prophesy mainly or only about events which are supposed to take place in our modern day future, near the end of world history before Christ's personal return. It simply stretches credulity to say that terms like "near," "soon," and "at hand" could connote, to John's original readers, anything other than their normal sense in other contexts (misguided appeals to 2nd Peter 3's 1000-years-as-a-day-to-the-Lord idea notwithstanding). This will become more forcefully clear in later verses of the first chapter when John introduces himself warmly to his audience as a "brother" and "partner" with them in tribulation, which tribulation he describes as intensifying but then gloriously ending in a short while, in the rest of the book. It would be insensitive, inappropriate, and indeed foolish for John to comfort his readers with assurances of nothing but far-distant future victories of Christ over the evil characters of the vision (even if final chapters do momentarily glance at far-distant future events). 2000 years is a mockery of the hope of a "short" while, no matter what one thinks "short" might mean, when the intense suffering of persecuted first century Christians is in view.

Moreover, as we continue through the book, and keep an eye both on Old Testament apocalyptic language and symbolism, and another eye on first century events of which we have great record, it should be relatively obvious that at least the interpretation offered here has strong enough biblical and historical warrant that it should be seriously considered, and comports with the idea that events in John's visions were truly soon to come to pass when he wrote. This idea, by the way--internal evidence--convinces me personally of the early date (c. 65 AD) for the revelation's authorship, as opposed to the more popular c. 95 AD date. If John insists he is prophesying of events in the near future, and then if as we study we see strong possible correlations between his visions and known events of the first century, especially events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, we as Bible believers are constrained to posit an early date of authorship. The primary sources of external evidence related to this question severely lack multiple independent attestation, and the primary source is linguistically ambiguous at best at the key point of contention (viz. a cryptic reference in Irenaeus' Against Heresies to either the apostle John, or to his vision itself being seen in the reign of Domitian).

So "futuristic" approaches to interpreting the rest of the book have a lot to overcome textually and historically in order to gain credibility, apart from demands in the rest of the constructs of their systematic theology which all too often are eisegetically read into every chapter of the revelation. "Historicist" approaches, which see the events described in the bulk of the book as prophetically laying out major events in the entire progression of church history, have a similar problem here. Even though, as we will see, Jesus commands John to write not only the things he "has seen" and "those that are," in addition to "those that are to take place after this," it is precisely this latter category of future events that John says to be imminent. It is not as though only the early stages of John's visions reveal imminent events. Therefore, while the historicist rightly recognizes the progressive nature of history referred to in the revelation, he or she fails to see that the overwhelming focus of the entire book (small exceptions as there may be) is events of the imminent future, not thousands of years of progressive church history.

What of "idealists," those who read the contents of revelation either as mere highly allegorical symbolism describing general spiritual truths in the world or inside believers' hearts and minds, or else as describing truly historical events (even perhaps in John's day) which nevertheless are repeated cyclically throughout church history, intensifying until a cataclysmic end at the return of Christ? Many idealist amillennial scholars have contributed significantly to the church's understanding of the book of revelation--at least as much as those from other positions if not more--especially in their ability to perceive and point out repetition and recapitulation between certain chapters of the book, where events are not intended to be read chronologically but rather in almost a spiral fashion, where camera angles are changing in John's visions yet the text is still describing identical events.

There is legitimacy to aspects of this approach in a couple of respects. First, there is indeed recapitulation to be found in the revelation. The judgment sequences of seals, trumpets, and bowls is one widely-recognized instance of this. The later chapters are more difficult and heavily disputed with regard to the question of recapitulation; still it is clearly present in many places and very important for understanding the book as a whole. Second, it is important that even with the concretely historical referents of the book in mind, in the course of a proper interpretation, the interpreter never forgets that the book ultimately reveals God Himself and something of the way He tends to interact with the world. Therefore there are principles we can learn from the tribulation of first century Christians and their perseverance and faithfulness through it all, all of which still powerfully affects and applies to us as we continue to challenge "beastly" evils in our world today, bearing witness to King Jesus in life and word even at the cost of our lives if necessary.

At the end of the day, however, two main problems arise with idealism as a total approach to interpreting the revelation. General patterns do recur in certain ways, and at different levels, throughout history, because of the way God interacts with the world out of His consistent, unchanging, divine character. But the comprehensive level of detail in New Testament prophecy regarding events of the "last days" is so great that--while God certainly has the ability to do this--it is an awkward thought that history would repeat itself so precisely, and so many times, as to fulfill every detail of the apocalyptic prophecies of the New Testament every time a new intensity of fulfillment occurs. This is particularly clear when one realizes that so much of New Testament eschatology deals specifically with the end of Israel's old covenantal economy, and the destruction of first century Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies. The more fundamental problem with idealism, though, is that it fails to appreciate the enormous implications of the events described in revelation, with respect to the progress of redemptive history and the consequences of first century events for the rest of the world. When the "soon," "at hand," and "near" events of the revelation finally transpired in the first century, it was not in order that similar but more and more cataclysmic apocalyptic events would transpire throughout the rest of history, but rather--as we will discuss at more length in later sections--that a new age of a completely different character would dawn and bring unprecedented blessings to the nations of the earth.

An idealist interpreter may respond at this point by saying that since the bringing of new blessings to the world through the progress of the gospel can be understood as a gradual, progressive process (and I agree it should be), it is possible to conceive of the prophesied judgments that allow for these blessings as coming in a cyclical, repeated, gradually increasing way as well. He or she might also point to Old Testament texts which seem to have had initial fulfillment in Old Covenant Israel's kingdom experiences but are also later fulfilled more perfectly by Christ (e.g. the promises of the Davidic Covenant concerning David's "son," which in a way refer to Solomon but ultimately point to Christ). At this point, I would want to observe that Old Testament near-and-far "typological" prophecy patterns are not quite the same as what most idealist interpreters do with New Testament prophecies, and I would also appeal again to the astounding level of detail and specificity in the New Testament end-time prophecies that make cyclical or progressive fulfillment unlikely at best. Consider that with the coming of Christ in the virgin birth, no one today expects an even "fuller" fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. There is an important difference between typology and cyclical/idealistic thematic fulfillment patterns. Typology involves fulfillments at categorically different levels during different stages of redemptive history (i.e. between covenant administrations), whereas idealist interpreters of New Testament eschatology posit multiple, ongoing fulfillments of identical prophecies within a single era of redemptive history (viz. the church age), at only gradually increasing levels. While events at the very end of church history as we know it, which I believe are only explicitly in view in one passage in the revelation (although other passages are organically related to it), will involve very, very broad thematic similarities to cataclysmic first century events, I hope to show that the details of the actual prophetic texts related to each time frame are too disparate to identify with each other, or to see fulfillment patterns of the "idealist" type happening with them.

As is probably clear by now, I take a historic "preterist" approach to interpreting John's apocalypse, meaning that I see most (but not all) of the prophecies in the book as having been fulfilled in the first century. This means that I do not see the revelation as prophesying mainly about events in our future today. What, then, is the book's relevance to us today, if not to warn us of "soon" coming tribulation? I believe the answer is threefold.

First, as we see the events prophesied in revelation fulfilled in the first century, we stand in awe at the faithfulness of God in keeping His promises, and His great justice and grace in executing His redemptive purposes in the world through judgment and salvation, and bringing to pass the beginning of the New Covenant kingdom era known also as the "church age." Our faith is bolstered by the fact that Jesus' own apocalyptic predictions concerning the doom of the temple in Jerusalem were one hundred percent correct.

Second, although the book does not prophesy specifically of tribulation we are to undergo, the rest of the New Testament makes it clear that throughout the church age, suffering is normal for Christians, and that "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom" (Acts 14:22). Therefore, we can learn from and be encouraged by the faithfulness of early Christians who did undergo persecutions and hardships spoken about specifically in the revelation, as we seek to sacrificially serve our neighbors and witness to the kingship of Christ before a hostile world, even today. We must see from the revelation how the first century martyrs were vindicated in an initial kind of way by God's doing, and that their deaths were not in vain. Neither would ours be, if we remain faithful.

Finally, with the bulk of the events of the revelation having been fulfilled in the first century, three great obstacles to the worldwide spread of the gospel have been taken out of the way: a centralized aristocracy of officials of apostate Judaism, the intense persecutions of a powerful, united, universal empire, and Satan's decisive power to continue deceiving the nations of the earth. Though there are and will be many challenges remaining until Christ's Second Advent at the end of this world's history as we know it, God did some important things in the first century to allow for the beginning of the process of making disciples throughout the whole earth. Those events are relevant today even as pastors preach the Word week by week, as missionaries cross cultures for the sake of bringing Christ to more peoples, and as laymen go to work six days to continue bringing the whole of creation under submission to Christ's benevolent rule and stewardship, to the glory of God the Father.

Even though it is true that Christ has many more enemies still today, and must rule from the right hand of God in heaven until all the rest of His enemies are made a footstool for His feet (Ps. 110; 1 Cor. 15), it is also true that in a definitive sense, as Handel's Messiah famously quotes, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever" (Rev. 11:15). That profound encouragement is why John's revelation matters today.

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