Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How about 7 little words?

Jude just composed a blog post about how the bible can be, in its broadest sense, summarized in 4 words: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.

I read his post as I logged in to write a blog post about how 7 little words are beginning to transform my understanding of the book of Revelation.

(As an aside-- numbers play an important role in scripture. There is, quite often, embedded significance when the scriptures use specific numbers.

You may notice, for example, that the Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years, and Moses spent 40 days on the Mount, Jesus was also tempted for 40 days -- so the number 40 becomes associated with grave trial.

4 happens to be the number of creation, which would make sense that the historical narrative God is weaving has four phases. 7 is said to be the number of spiritual or complete perfection: 7 days in a week, 7 colours in the spectrum, 7 seals, 7 trumpets etc... to say that this has ANY significance on my 7 words in Revelation 1 would be a stretch at best, and a mistreatment of scripture at worst -- so I suppose this digression is moot.)

Anyway, the seven words that have rocked my understanding are in Revelation 1:1:

1"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"

"The things that must SOON take place."

Revelation is a difficult portion of scripture, but one thing that has always bothered me is that many scholars seem to talk, with much conviction, about what this symbol means and what that symbol means and I often walk away feeling like we're mishandling the word of God.

My two main issues:
1. I think the popular futuristic understanding of Revelation diminishes the value of the Revelation.
2. I find that pastors seem to twist some plain sentences in order to fit symbolic language in to a specific perspective.

My first concern is, are we to assume that for 2000 years of church history this book was largely useless to the people of God? Only now, when we live in "the last days" do these warnings about future events begin to become relevant. I have always had trouble wrapping my head around that... it seems rather self centered of us.

My second concern is when I hear pastor's stretching symbolic language to say, for example, that locusts that breath fire "could" be fighter jets and we've all heard uncomfortable connections like that.

One of the biggest issues with this is when we are making large assumptions about language that is clearly symbolic, and yet they will excuse plain instruction or insight, such as John's very plain instruction that this Revelation is about the things that are soon to take place.

So there are four ways of looking at the book of Revelation:

1. The Preterist Approach: This view sees prophecy as chiefly relating to events in or near its own time. It has, therefore, already been fulfilled. Revelation, for example, may be seen as referring to the struggle of Christianity to survive the persecutions of the Roman Empire, among other things.

2. The Historic Approach: This view would hold that biblical prophecies provide us with a broad view of history, as well as an explanation of the religious significance of historical events. Historicists attempt to identify prophetic passages with major events in history.

3. The Futurist Approach: In the futurist method, parallels may be drawn with historical events, but eschatological prophecies are chiefly referring to events which as yet have not come to pass, but will take place at the end of the age and the end of the world.

4: The Idealist Approach: In the idealist approach, also known as spiritualist or symbolic, the events described in prophecy are neither past, present, nor future, but are representative of larger ideals and principles. Eschatological prophecy deals with the ongoing struggle between the forces of light and darkness, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Its message is purely a spiritual one, an allegory of the spiritual path, which is equally relevant in all ages and for all people.

I think that these 7 little words: "The things that must SOON take place", compel us to use a preterist approach when studying the book of Revelation, and taking this approach myself, I have found that Revelation is a much less complicated and far more enjoyable book to read. It was meant for a specific people during a specific time and catalogued events that took place shortly afterwards-- but just like Paul's letters there is still so much for me to learn from it!


  1. Nate, interesting post.
    Before I reveal my opinion of the preterist view, a few comments:

    "My first concern is, are we to assume that for 2000 years of church history this book was largely useless to the people of God? Only now, when we live in "the last days" do these warnings about future events begin to become relevant." The suggestion that any approach to Revelation, apart from the preterist approach, would find the book largely useless is inaccurate and uncharitable. It seems to me that even the most committed futurist or idealist would find Revelation useful. As a one time dispensationalist, I still found Revelation helpful. For instance, Revelation 5, with the scenario of the scroll and the lamb, was always inspiring and hope-engendering and faith building despite the fact that I saw it as a future event. What would make you assume it was useless? A prophecy may have many uses apart from determining what will happen in the future.

    Also, you said "I have always had trouble wrapping my head around that... it seems rather self centered of us." That knife will cut both ways. With a preterist approach you "have found that Revelation is a much less complicated and far more enjoyable book to read." One could accuse you of self-centeredness based on your choosing a viewpoint that helps you make Revelation less complicated and more enjoyable. Though I don't think your approaching it for that reason.

    Finally, your list of approaches to Revelation seem to leave out the approach that those I have read seem to espouse. It seems to me that many ammillenialists and premillenialists take an approach that combines the approaches listed above; partial-preterists if you will. I don't recall them declaring which camp they are in, but it seems to me they don't fit solely into any of the four. Is the list you suggest exhaustive and what of the possibility of combining various approaches?

    Now, as for my opinion, I'll confess that I have not studied this overmuch, but I did look into it a bit last year. One major weakness of the preterist approach, and one of the reasons the majority of evangelical scholars don't hold to it(a point I have heard but not personally confirmed), is the dating of the book of Revelation. The late dating of Revelation that the majority of evangelical scholars hold to causes the preterist view to fall. With that info, I really didn't pursue studying it much. Counting the most heads doesn't make one right, but you know my stance on appealing to the "experts".

    I found this message by Kim Riddlebarger interesting(though he is an amil):

    Also, the "soon" you refer to is not necessarily compelling for me, especially since it is followed up in 3:11 by Jesus saying "I am coming soon."

    Anyways, good post. Perhaps I'll look into it more this summer.

  2. To be honest, I think as I study the nuances of the differing views I would fall in to the "partial preterist" camp myself.

    What I don't hold to is the type of partial preterism that holds to the idea that there is a dual prophetic nature to many of the prophecies in Revelation.

    Some will say that, for example, the mark of the beast does refer to Nero's mark that limited buying and selling in the market place but ALSO refers to a future event to come "at the end of the age".

    I don't think there is any biblical warrant for us to assume there is a dual meaning to prophecies unless the bible specifically says so.

    I think that comparing "soon" in 1:1 to "soon" in 3:11 is the wrong comparison. I think you're analyzing the wrong word Mr. St. John :)

    We have New Testament ears as the NT is the far more familiar portion of scripture to us. This means we hear Jesus say he is "coming" and we immediately reference it to the event of His Second Coming. The recipients of this letter and revelation, however, would still have Old Testament ears. And in the OT when God is referred to as "coming" it is (often) in reference to His coming in judgment.

    I think the 7 seals are referring to judgments coming on the enemies of God's people at the time John is writing.

    Of course that's all flushed away if the book can't be dated prior to fall destruction of the temple in AD 70... so I will listen to your linked sermon... snoop around and look forward to a good "pals" discussion next week.

  3. Interesting that you would think Gentiles would have Old Testament ears. Really? It is accepted fact that NT believers felt Jesus' return was "soon", even before Revelation was written.

    Look into the dating of Revelation. I have heard several reputable sources say that the overwhelming majority of NT scholars pick the later date. I haven't verified yet.

  4. Well he's writing to churches... where public reading of the OT scriptures was a mandatory part of corporate worship... so in that sense, yes I would say that they have "new testament ears".

    I agree that the New Testament believers thought Jesus was returning soon, but clearly he didn't. It's the issue that people have with Matthew 24 when Jesus prophecies about the destruction of the temple and what "seems like" His Second Coming... but then he goes on to say that all those things will happen within the life time of his disciples. So obviously Jesus wasn't referring to His Second COming, because we know he's a real prophet and doesn't make mistakes.

    I would treat Rev. 3:11 the same way. We hear it and think it means Jesus is coming back soon... clearly that's not what it meant otherwise there is some type of error in scripture... or we are analyzing the text in the wrong way. The problem is never with scripture.

    I have the link to that sermon saved and I will look in to the date tomorrow.

    Where would you land on these different approaches to Revelation?

  5. Well, I take John saying these things would happen soon as us, and them, hearing soon but it not meaning soon. That is my point. "Soon" doesn't necessarily mean soon. I imagine that when Revelation was read they thought soon meant soon, but it didn't necessarily. To me, that weakens the force of John saying these things would happen soon.

    Not sure where I would land ... as per usual I like to pick and choose as it suits me. :)

  6. Ok, junior youth is done. :)

    I agree, I just have issue with John writing "soon" and being mistaken about it... it seems that if we believe Revelation is inspired scripture, that would be a "mistake" that shouldn't have made it past the Holy Spirit editing.

    BUUUT I fully admit that to take my approach I have to take "soon" in Rev. 3:11 to mean something other than soon... though I think OT warrants me believing it refers to coming in judgment.

    Anyway... heading home to listen to that sermon link... I'll let you know where i land.