Archive for January, 2011

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4 Different Views on Revelation

January 24, 2011

There have been many different interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation. All of them offer valuable insights. In this section I will briefly summarize the different approaches as well as commenting briefly on my own approach to the book.

Idealist Approach:

The idealist approach mines the book of Revelation for timeless theological truths that apply to all generations. Revelation is viewed as symbolically expressing the cosmic conflict between the kingdom of God and satanic powers. However, commentators who take this approach often deny that the book has any specific historical meaning. The problem with this position is not what it affirms. All interpreters of Revelation believe that there are timeless theological truths contained in this book. The incompleteness of this exegetical approach to Revelation is in what it denies; its historical rootedness in the 1st century believing community.

The book of Revelation, among other things, is a letter written to 7 specific churches, which indicates that it had historical relevance for its first hearers, as well as its future hearers.

Historicist Approach:

This approach understands the book of Revelation to be a detailed map of history from the first coming of Christ to the second coming of Christ. In this view the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are seen to represent 7 stages of church history. This position has had adherents throughout church history but was quite popular during the 17th and 18 century.3

Usually, these interpreters have focused exclusively on Western European History. Their historical analysis and Biblical exegesis has often proven to be strained and implausible. Also, proponents of this position have seldom agreed in matching historical events with symbols and descriptions in Revelation. Curiously enough, people who support these theories always believe themselves to be in the last phase of history, whether the year is 1000 AD or 2000 AD or anywhere in between.4 As a result few commentators take this position any longer.

Preterist Approach:

Theologians who take this approach to Revelation read the book in the same way they believe that John’s first hearers would have read the book. They seek to read the book of Revelation in its historical context. The book needs to be understand under the shadow of Roman Imperial might, Emperor worship and the persecution of Christians that resulted from their treasonous refusal to bow the knee to Caesar as lord and Savior.

Some extreme proponents of this view claim that the book was completely fulfilled in the first century. However, it is extremely unlikely that the original audience of this book would have believed that the events described in Revelation 19-22 had already taken place.

Futurist Approach:

In its radical form this view implies that the book of Revelation is entirely preoccupied with future events and had no direct relevance to the 1st century recipients of the Apostle John’s letter. As in the historicist view, the 7 churches are sometimes represented as expressing 7 stages in church history. John’s ‘rapture’ into heaven (chapter 4) is often claimed to represent the rapture of the church. Often in this interpretive Framework everything after Revelation 5 refers strictly to future events involving the nation of Israel and the Anti–Christ.

Much of this interpretation strains exegetical integrity to a breaking point. There is no good reason to understand the 7 churches as referring to seven church ages and there are many good reasons not to. For example, in Jesus’ addresses to the churches he makes comments that express an awareness of the cultural situation and geography of those specific cities where the churches were located in the 1st century. Also, there is no good reason whatsoever to understand John’s rapture as symbolically referring to the churches rapture.

Popular writers in this school of thought also have a tendency to interpret the images of Revelation in a way that would make no sense to the 1st century hearers. Instead of letting scripture interpret scripture, and looking to the Old Testament for the source of some of John’s images, a swarm of deadly locusts in chapter 9 is treated as a squadron of Army Helicopters (the Old Testament reference for this image would be Joel 1:2-18, 2)5. Another example can be found in chapter 12 of Revelation where one popular author in this school interprets the Eagle (12:14) to be American fighter jets rescuing Jews from the Anti-Christ. In reality the imagery comes from Exodus 19:56.

So this view suffers the fatal flaw of making John’s Revelation virtually inapplicable to the historical context of the first recipients of this letter.

Also, those who use this book to predict the future never get it right. In the words of theologian Paul Spilsbury,

“all their major predictions have failed to materialize. Also, these books are strangely silent about the major events that have indeed occurred in recent times. In the end, this approach to Revelation is simply not reliable”7.

A great example of this exegetical error can be found in Hal Lindsey’s, “The Late Great Planet Earth”. It was written in the 70s, has sold over 15 million copies and I read most of it in my preparation for this series. I found that many of his prediction had already proven to be erroneous.

However, one benefit of this position is, “this view agrees that the primary purpose of the book is to describe the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose and the end of the age”.8 I agree. Revelation is about God’s redemptive purposes and ends with ‘the end of the age’.

In reading the above section you may have sensed that I am sharply critical of this view. That is only because I am sharply critical of this view. I find it distasteful to criticize brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I want to be forthright and honest about my skepticism directed towards this school of interpretation.

Incidentally, the above interpretation of Revelation (or something quite similar to it) is taken by the authors of the Left Behind series. We have these books in our church library as fiction not theology. Regrettably, (in my mind at least) through the influence of these books the school of interpretation mentioned above is the most popular approach to the book Revelation today.

Despite my criticisms of the above view I believe it is important to approach Revelation humbly and not to be overly dogmatic about how we understand the book. I am open to being convinced that criticisms of this view are unwarranted.

(See, ‘When time shall be no more”, by Paul Boyer for a detailed historical analysis of how this reading of Revelation gained prominence in North American Christian culture).

My approach:

To me the best approach to the book of Revelation seems to be an eclectic approach. Elements of the differing views can be incorporated beneficially into our understanding of the book. For example, the Futurists are correct in pointing out that some events described in Revelation have yet to be fulfilled (2nd coming of Christ, Final judgement in chapter 20, renewal of all things in chapter 21,22). The Idealists are right in stressing the timeless theological truths that explode off the pages of John’s revelation.

The Preterist approach to the book reminds us of the importance of historical context and safe guards the relevance of this book for the first century Christian recipients. In fact, most erroneous interpretations of this book have gone off base at exactly this point. They have interpreted this book in ways that would have had no relevance to the 1st century recipients of the letter. An approach that combines the beneficial insights from all these different views while avoiding the extremes seems best to me.

Resources:

Darrell Johnson, “Discipleship on the Edge”

Robert W. Wall “Revelation: New International Biblical Commentary”

Paul Spilsbury, “The Throne, The Lamb & The Dragon”

Richard Bauckham, “The Theology of the Book of Revelation”

Leon Morris, “Revelation: The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries”

Eugene Peterson, “Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of St. John & the Praying Imagination”

George Eldon Ladd, “A commentary on the Revelation of John”

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Reversed Thunder: Authorship

January 18, 2011

Authorship

There is widespread agreement amongst New Testament scholars as to who wrote many of the books in the New Testament. For example, no New Testament scholar that I’ve heard of denies that the Apostle Paul wrote Galatians, 1st Thessalonians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians and Romans.

However, there are some books in the Bible on which scholars debate authorship, such as the book of Revelation. I believe that the Apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest friends, wrote the book of Revelation. In this section I will give reasons for that conclusion, as well as discuss some arguments against John’s authorship of this book.

Evidence for the Apostle John writing this book

Firstly, the author introduces himself as John. He calls himself a servant (1:1), a brother in Christ (1:9) and one of the prophets (22:9). Some would contend that this indicates the author was the apostle because no one else would call himself simply, John. Only the apostle John was well known enough to get by with such a minimal introduction.

Secondly, the entire book is permeated with authority that would be in line with apostolic authorship.

Thirdly, the unanimous testimony of the early church fathers is that John, the Apostle, wrote the Revelation. We find this affirmation in the writings of Justin Martyr (2nd Century), Ireneus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. This was the unanimous position of the early church until Dionysius of Alexandria attributed authorship to another John in the 3rd century .

Fourthly, church tradition tells us that John moved to Ephesus with Mary, Jesus’ mother. He lived there for many years ministering and pastoring. He would have been extremely well known in Asia Minor. He also would have had an intimate understanding of the state of the churches in the area, as well as the geography. This type of knowledge is evident in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3.

John was exiled to Patmos in circa 92 to 96 AD, when Emperor Domitian started persecuting Christians. What we know of the Apostle John fits nicely with the context of Revelation.

Evidence against the Apostle John writing this book

Firstly, the style of the book of Revelation is completely different than the Gospel of John and 1st John. The Greek is also quite different. No one denies that.

Secondly, there is suspicion as to why John identifies himself as a prophet and not as an apostle.

Thirdly, some contend that Revelation has theology that is incompatible with the theological emphasis of John’s Gospel and his epistles. John is the apostle of Love (1st John 4) in the latter, while Revelation is filled with judgment and wrath (Rev 6 or 14).

What can be said in response to these arguments?

A multitude of things. Firstly, the Revelation is apocalyptic literature, whereas the Gospel of John is not. This can clearly account for the difference in style. Here is what scholar Leon Morris writes,

“It is possible that some of the curious language is due to the fact that the writer is setting out visions and oracles of divine origin. There is some evidence that an ungrammatical style was held in certain circles to be appropriate to such inspired communication”.

Secondly, there are also literary similarities. The Gospel of John and Revelation are the only two books in the New Testament that use the Greek word ‘logos’ (Rev 19:13, John 1:1). Also, both books use the imagery of the lamb, the water of life, and the phrase “he that overcomes” (For more evidence compare Jn. 19:37 with Rev 1:9, Jn. 7:37 with Rev. 22:17 and Jn. 10:18 with Rev. 2:27).

Lastly, both the Gospel of John and Revelation were clearly written by someone who was writing Greek in their second language.

As for the second objection, John may have felt no need to identify himself as an apostle. He was already well known in the area to which he was writing.

The third objection is not very compelling. The Gospel of John and the epistles are similar in their theology to the book of Revelation. In the Gospel of John, the Apostle talks about the judgment and wrath of God. Most people read John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world…” and stop right there. If they continued to read, they would find John writing, “Whoever believes in the son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). The only difference is that Revelation is Apocalyptic literature which communicates through symbols and often grotesque imagery.

In conclusion, regardless of whether or not John the Apostle wrote Revelation we still believe it is inspired by God and profitable for us to study. That is the most important thing.

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Created for Community

January 3, 2011

This Sunday we talked about authentic community. I want to use this blog post to encourage us all in four areas that are crucial for authentic, Biblical community to take place.

Firstly, don’t run from commitment. Community can’t happen if people don’t commit to a church. There is a lot of what Eugene Peterson calls, ‘Ecclesiastical pornography’ going around in the church nowadays.

Pornography creates an air brushed picture of a person that isn’t reality. Pornography creates dissatisfaction with reality.; the reality of a real person with hang ups, baggage and bad breathe. A Picture doesn’t ask anything of you either.

Ecclesiastical pornography is when pastors, books, or other Christians present an airbrushed version of the church, or their church, that they want to exist. This airbrushed version of the church causes us to be dissatisfied with the place God has called us so we church hop looking for the ideal church instead of loving the real church.

Eventually we have to just commit to a church body and get involved until God calls us elsewhere.

Eugene Peterson also writes, “The church we want can be an enemy to the church we have”. That is a line worth pondering.

Secondly, don’t run from your sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. In reality some church hopping is a flight from sanctification. Here is what I mean:

When I am involved in authentic community other people will stir up things in me that are ugly; attitude or ways of relating that are unhealthy and destructive. My natural response will be to blame others for creating this in me and run away from the relationships.

Instead, I need to realize the person is revealing what is already in me and in running away from the person or the community, I am running away from my own sanctification and growth in the image and likeness of Christ. Some people leave churches or small groups because a pastor, or a brother or sister in Christ, lovingly calls them on their sin. That is running away from sanctification.

Thirdly, don’t flee from intergenerational community. The church is to be an intergeneration community.

1st Tim 5:1 and 2 says,

“Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity”. The church is to be a family with intergenerational relationships taking place.

Sometimes in the church we get so age specific, which isn’t that bad, but in doing so we neglect relationships with people who are outside our current stage of life.

The end result is that in the church you have a bunch of young people getting together and pooling their ignorance and a bunch of older people getting together and pooling their wisdom without any way to bridge the gap.

The result is young people find all the land mines in life by driving over them, ‘they get a foot blown off, are like ‘ouch’ that hurt, better not do that again’. It’s not a great plan. A better idea would be to glean wisdom from older, godly people and learn from their mistakes and thereby avoid the land mines.

But here is the problem that another preacher pointed out to me. When I graduated from high school I would see high school kids milling around at the mall and something within me was like, ‘punk kids’.

Then I graduated from College and I would see college kids hanging around and would think, ‘punk kids’. Some of you are older then me and when you hear me preach you think, ‘punk kid’.

And on and on it goes until you have the 90-year-old sitting in the back of the church service going, ‘you’re all punks’. We really need to repent of that kind of attitude and reach out across the generations.

Don’t run from intergenerational relationships. People who are in a season of life that is a step or two ahead of you can offer valuable wisdom and insight.

My last encouragement is don’t neglect meeting together.

Hebrews 10:24,25 says, “ Let us consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another- all the more as you see the day approaching.”

It is hard to live the Christian life alone without the support of community. Without people to pray for you, encourage you, lift you up when you stumble, and tell you the truth when you are struggling with lies.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the analogy of the coals in the fireplace. As long as a coal is in a fireplace with other coals it remains red hot. As soon as you separate an individual coal from the rest of its friends it begins to cool down. It’s the same with Christians separated from Christian community.

God Bless you as you ponder these four encouragements. Happy New Year!