Egocentric Eschatology and a Hermeneutic of Love

“We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” – 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, The Message

I found an interesting book at Goodwill the other day. It’s a theological companion of sorts to the hugely popular Left Behind series called Are We Living in the End Times?. If you’re familiar at all with the Left Behind series, then you can probably guess how this book answers the question posed in its title. Thankfully, unlike their spiritual godfather Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins don’t try to set any firm dates for Christ’s return. They’re content with the much safer premise that “we have more reason than any generation before us to believe He will come in our generation” (xi).

9780842300988_p0_v1_s260x420The argument LaHaye and Jenkins make in support of their premise is pretty standard fare. It consists mostly of cherry-picking prophetic texts like Daniel 12:4, Ezekiel 47, and Matthew 24:14 and relating them directly to contemporary events like the technological revolution, the reemergence of Israel, and the advance of the gospel. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the authorial intent or historical context of those verses. They are simply lifted from their native environment and applied confidently, imperialistically, to our generation. “Hardly anyone doubts that ours is a day when people are ‘running to and fro’ and knowledge has increased” (x).

This is nothing new, of course. Ever since the late second century charismatic teachers on the fringe of the Christian faith have gathered followers by claiming that they were living in the last and most important generation in history. Only in the last two centuries has this idea come into the mainstream, however, thanks mostly to the influence of John Nelson Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible. Given that the Left Behind series has sold 63 million copies and is soon to be a major motion picture starring Nicolas Cage, it looks like the mass appeal of this pseudo-biblical eschatology has yet to die off.

I might take a series of posts soon to address some of the most popular reasons for thinking that this is the last generation and why that’s not actually what the biblical texts are referring to. But first I want to address a larger problem which feeds and supports this booming industry of end-times speculation. This is the problem of egocentrism.

We all know what it feels like to talk to someone who doesn’t have the patience or empathy to hear us out because they think they already know what we’re going to say before we say it. If we’re honest, we’ve probably been that person on more than one occasion. It takes tremendous effort to step outside of ourselves, to lay down our own expectations and preconceived ideas, and just listen to someone on their own terms. But that’s what we do when we love someone. In the same way, when we come to the words of God in Scripture, our first priority should not be to get something for ourselves or to find confirmation for what we think it should say, but to simply listen, without agenda, to what the text says. Far from being a dry or clinical discipline, biblical exegesis should be the natural outflow of a loving heart.

If we come to God’s word on its own terms, we are bound to discover two hard but ultimately liberating truths. First, the Bible wasn’t written to us. It was written to people who lived between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago in an environment very different from our own. Second, the Bible isn’t mostly about us—at least, not directly anyway. The Bible is mostly about Jesus, and it invites us to see Jesus’ story as our story, to reshape our lives around his life. Too often, though, we come to the Bible with the expectation that it should speak directly to us and about us, that it should conform to us instead of us conforming to it.

This is why there is often so much unhealthy obsession with biblical prophecy. If the last 2,000 years of failed end-time predictions tells us anything, it’s that we desperately want the Bible to be about us. We create new “signs of the times” to fit current events and create lists of reasons why our generation is the last generation, the most important generation, the generation the Bible talks about the most. Paul defines prophecy as peering through a glass darkly, but we somehow manage to find our own face on every opaque surface.

The only way to counterbalance our fallen tendency toward a self-centered reading of Scripture is to take the context of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 seriously. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s pastoral instruction regarding the use of prophecy is also the most extensive description of Christian love in the New Testament. What does a mature Christian love look like when applied to the art of biblical interpretation? Answer: Love does not seek its own. As N. T. Wright says it, “Love is the deepest mode of knowing because it is love that, while completely engaging with reality other than itself, affirms and celebrates that other-than-self reality” (Surprised by Hope, 73).

We must replace our egocentric eschatology with a hermeneutic of love. We must write the words “love does not seek its own” on the doorway of our hearts so that every time we come to God’s word our ears will be open to the story he is telling, not the story we want to hear. Only by affirming and celebrating the “other-than-self reality” of God’s word, by counting everything as loss for the sake of knowing Christ and becoming like him in his death—only then will his story become our story.

Posted in Eschatology, Futurism, Hermeneutics, Logical Positivism | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

All Israel Will Be Saved: An Orthodox Consensus?

Israel-flag01c-300x300How do you interpret Romans 11:26?

Be careful how you answer that question, because it’s a major theological boundary marker for many evangelical churches today, an easy litmus test to decide who’s “out” and who’s “in”. Indeed, judging by the way many evangelicals talk about this subject, one might get the impression it was more important than the divinity of Jesus or justification by faith.

But like many evangelical boundary markers, I can’t help thinking that this question raises the flag of orthodoxy at entirely the wrong place. Let me explain.

There are basically five different ways of understanding Paul’s words in Romans 11:26 (these are rough generalizations, of course; there are many variations of these basic positions):

1) The dual covenant view, in which “all Israel will be saved” refers to literally every single Jew—past, present, and future—saved apart from Christ through the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants.

2) The futurist view, in which “all Israel will be saved” refers to the mass salvation of the surviving remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, either just before or just after Christ’s second coming. This view is often (though not always) combined with a dispensational scheme in which these surviving Jews become the primary recipients of all the OT promises contained in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, having those promises fulfilled in a thousand-year Jewish kingdom.

3) The present-continuous view, in which “all Israel will be saved” refers to the full number of Jews saved by faith throughout the present age, whatever that number might be. This is the view that I personally subscribe to and have argued for at some length.

4) The new covenant view, in which “all Israel will be saved” refers to the elect, the full number of Jews and Gentiles joined together in God’s renewed family by faith. This is often called “supercessionism” or “replacement theology” by adherents of the first two views, but that title doesn’t really fit since nobody is actually replaced in this view.

5) The (real) supercessionist view, in which “all Israel will be saved” refers to the church as a basically Gentile entity replacing the Jews as God’s chosen people.

Views 1 and 5 are the two extreme ends of the spectrum, and neither is truly Christian in my opinion, for they both distort the gospel at a crucial point. View 1 distorts the gospel by positing another way to salvation for Jews apart from Christ, while view 5 distorts the gospel by positing an alternative ethnocentrism in which Gentiles replace Jews.

But placing views 1 and 5 to the side as aberrant, it seems to me that the other three views have more in common than their adherents often suppose. That is to say, whether we take “all Israel” as referring to (2) a remnant of ethnic Israel at the end of the age, (3) Jews saved throughout the present age, or (4) the “Israel of God” comprised of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles—in any case Paul would be stating the obvious.

Of course all Israel will be saved; every tribe and tongue will be saved when it’s all said and done. The necessary qualifications that must be applied to “all” for it to be a realistic Christian statement make the phrase entirely superfluous to what Paul has been saying all along. So, regardless of who “Israel” refers to there, it isn’t a new piece of information to the message of the passage itself and therefore shouldn’t be a hill that anyone is willing to die on. However we understand Romans 11:26, the thrust of the rest of the passage is clear enough, and it should be a gathering point for unity rather than a cause for breaking fellowship.

Paul wants the Gentile believers in Rome to know that God has by no means rejected the original people whom he called, that it’s not as if the Gentiles have replaced the Jews in His plan. His call for ethnic Israel stands now as it always has, for “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” (vv. 28-29). He has not ditched the old and started anew (supercessionism), and yet neither has he split his covenant family into two separate groups (dual covenant theology), but rather the Gentiles have been “grafted in” to the one historic people of God (vv. 16-17). Thus they should not boast against the Jews, for it’s upon the shoulders of Jews that they stand; they have accepted a torch which was first received and for two thousand years carried almost entirely by Jews (v. 18). As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “salvation is of the Jews”.

The only appropriate response, therefore, is gratefulness, which is exactly what Paul appeals to as he calls for immediate support for the church in Jerusalem (15:25-27). “For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things,” he says, “their duty is also to minister to them in material things.” This, it seems, at least according to Paul, is a key part of the church’s mandate; not to blindly support the political state of Israel in all of its endeavors, but in grateful humility to give the best of our resources—our time, money and energy—toward advancing the gospel amongst the Jews, and to support our Jewish brethren who are giving themselves to that end.

Now, according to my view, none of this is based on the Jews having a distinct calling in this age or in the age to come; rather it’s based wholly on the heart of a dynamically relational and loving God who had a friend named Abraham, and on his outrageous mercy that continues to chase that man’s rebellious children—not because he has to, as if he was bound by a contract he now regrets signing, but because he wants to, because his faithfulness remains even when we are faithless.

But this distinct qualification aside, it seems to me that the basic contours of this reading are common to all three orthodox views. Am I correct in thinking this, or am I missing something?

Posted in General/Random | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Understanding Revelation: It’s always literal, except when it’s not, which is more often than we like to admit

The book of Revelation should always be interpreted literally unless it clearly indicates otherwise. It means what it says and says what it means.

Except, of course, for when it describes a wounded lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. Everyone knows that’s Jesus, so it’s an obvious exception.

Or when it describes a sea beast with seven heads and ten horns. We know that imagery from the book of Daniel, so it’s another exception.

And of course there’s the other beast that comes out of the earth, looks like lamb and talks like a dragon. That’s clearly symbolic because, well, it comes right after the first beast.

So there are three clear exceptions. But everything else is literal unless the passage itself says it’s symbolic by calling it a “sign”, like Rev. 12:1-3 does with the woman and the dragon.

Or like Rev. 15:1 does with all of the bowl judgments.

Or like Rev. 1:1 does with the whole book.

Oh, wait…

Posted in Eschatology, Futurism, Hermeneutics, Revelation | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Montanism Revisited: A New Controlling Narrative

Introduction

063_apocalypse_tapestry_in_angers_la_jerusalem_nouvelle_postcardSometime around AD165 a man named Montanus, a recent convert to Christianity from Phrygia in the mountains of Asia Minor, began announcing new prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit about the imminent consummation to world history. Two charismatic women named Maximilla and Priscilla quickly joined his cause and the three of them began to attract a huge following. The three prophets also attracted sharp criticism throughout the church, however, and around 177 the movement was condemned by an assembly of bishops as heretical.[1] Like many early heresies, most of what we know about Montanism—or the New Prophecy, as it was called by its adherents—comes from the point of view of its opponents, which makes it difficult to form an accurate and balanced view of the movement. One of the unique features of Montanism, however, is that there didn’t seem to be much consensus amongst its detractors on why it was condemned in the first place.

Many of the more outrageous charges leveled against the movement in the generations after its peak are no longer taken seriously by scholars.[2] An older generation of historians tended to fixate on one or two doctrinal issues, like their formulation of the Trinity or the ecstatic nature of their prophetic experiences.[3] The more recent trend is to seek an underlying sociological explanation—a clash of authority between the rural prophets and the urban establishment, for example.[4] Cessationists like to draw parallels between Montanism and present day Pentecostalism or charismatic movements.[5] Here it will be argued that, ultimately, the New Prophecy was condemned not because of any single doctrine or practice that was manifestly at odds with orthodoxy, or because it posed a threat to existing authority structures, but because it had substantially displaced the controlling narrative of the rest of the church with its own special narrative, enforcing a new shared identity which set it apart from the larger community of Jesus’ followers. This proposal provides a more holistic way of reading the evidence that incorporates the best elements of other theories while setting them in the context of a more persuasive overall hypothesis.

Worldviews and Stories

In his monumental work The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright investigates the historical context and theology of the earliest Christians by employing the category of “worldview”. This approach, Wright argues, has the advantage of addressing historical questions in a more holistic fashion, avoiding the reductionist paradigms which have plagued scholarship.[6] Worldviews, he says, are “the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are.”[7]

One of the primary things worldviews consist of are stories. “Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark.”[8] The stories we tell express our view of reality and our answers to all of life’s biggest questions, including questions related to our own identity and place in the world. These stories and the implicit answers they provide to life’s big questions are in turn expressed through our cultural symbols (festivals, architecture, art, etc.) and praxis (our particular way of living in the world).[9] Analyzing a movement like Montanism from this vantage point—i.e., not just in terms of isolated statements or practices but in terms of the larger narrative and worldview expressed by those statements and practices—should provide a much more fruitful avenue for explaining its condemnation by the wider church of the period.

The church is an international community whose shared identity is based primarily on the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That is our controlling narrative. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. So the test of authenticity for any would-be Christian community is not ultimately whether they have the right “statement of faith” with the right boxes checked for this or that doctrine, but whether the story of Jesus is the primary source of their shared identity. The key question is not whether the Montanists deviated from orthodoxy on this or that point in their doctrine or practice, but whether the larger narrative which stood behind that doctrine and practice deviated from the central narrative of the rest of the church.

A New Controlling Narrative?

The underlying narrative of Montanism can perhaps be seen most clearly in one of the most well known fragments, attributed by a man named Epiphanius to Priscilla or Quintilla, about the eschatological significance of the movement’s headquarters: “Christ came to me in a bright robe and put wisdom in me, and revealed to me that this place is holy, and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven.”[10] According to Appolonius, Montanus himself had given the name “Jerusalem” to Pepuza and Tymion, wanting people to gather there from everywhere.[11] These reports are generally believed to be authentic, and corroborative archeological evidence for their accuracy has recently been advanced by the prominent Montanist scholar William Tabbernee.[12] However, several other scholars have recently disputed their authenticity on the grounds that Tertullian, who became a very vocal advocate for the Montanists, never spoke of eschatological events involving Pepuza, but only Jerusalem.[13] If they are authentic, then they provide a striking window into what surely would have been a central feature of the Montanist worldview.

Perhaps a more fruitful avenue for our inquiry, however, would be to analyze statements made by Tertullian himself in support of Montanism. This would have the twofold advantage of (a) starting on solid historical ground and (b) giving appropriate weight to the testimony of a supporter of the movement who wished to present it in the most favorable light. In Tertullian’s work On Monogamy, in which he argues for the unprecedentedly strict Montanist ethic related to marriage and sex, he seeks to rationalize the discontinuity between that ethic and the instruction of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 by appealing to Jesus’ relationship to the Old Covenant: “If Christ abrogated what Moses commanded because from the beginning it was not so… why should not the Paraclete alter what Paul permitted?”[14] This extreme ethic, and the rationalist hermeneutic which Tertullian employs to support it, tells us something crucial about the underlying Montanist narrative.

In many ways Tertullian held a very high view of the Scriptures, but he also wasted no opportunity in declaring the superiority of the new revelations given to the leaders of Montanism through the Paraclete. For him the Spirit was a restorer rather than an innovator, and this new dispensation of revelations was even foretold by Christ in John 16:13.[15] While Tertullian clearly sought to root these revelations in continuity with the Scriptures, however, he also believed firmly in their transcendent quality:

“What, then, is the Paraclete’s administrative office but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the reformation of the intellect, the advancement toward the ‘better things?’ Nothing is without stages of growth: all things await their season… Look how creation itself advances little by little to fructification… So, too, righteousness… advanced, through the Law and the Prophets, to infancy; from that stage it passed, through the Gospel, to the fervor of youth: now, through the Paraclete, it is settling into maturity.”[16]

Erich Nestler points out the inherent danger in this hermeneutic, that it opens the door to all kinds of new doctrines and practices that have no basis in Scripture.[17] But the more basic problem, beyond any potential danger, is that it tells a narrative in which the New Prophecy has functionally superseded the New Testament as the final authority for life and godliness.

This same implicit narrative can be observed in several fragments generally believed to be authentic sayings of Maximilla. “After me there will no longer be a prophet,” she declares, “but the end.”[18] Stewart-Sykes rightly cautions against seeing too much of a contrast between the eschatological orientation of the Montanists and that of the wider Asian church of the period, as seen, for instance, in the writings of Papias and the Epistula apostorum.[19] But the more alarming detail of this fragment, beyond the overly confident note of imminence, is the position in which it places Maximilla herself as the last prophet, the final voice from God to humanity before the consummation. The underlying story is one in which the Montanist leadership are at the center and climax of God’s great eschatological program. Like Tertullian, Maximilla tries to root her oracles in continuity with the words of Christ, giving an appearance of humility: “Hear not me, but hear Christ.”[20] And yet she presents herself as the final interpreter of Christ: “The Lord has sent me as partisan, revealer, and interpreter of this suffering, covenant, and promise.”[21]

If the statements of Tertullian and Maximilla can be taken as representative, then it appears that the Montanists developed a new interpretive framework in order to legitimate their new revelations; they rationalized the areas of discontinuity between their experiences and the New Testament by treating the New Testament in the same way that the New Testament treats the Old Testament, believing that they stood in a new and greater phase of redemptive history comparable to Jesus’ position in relation to the law and prophets. Instead of submitting their ecstatic experiences to the authority of Scripture, those experiences became the rod by which everything else was measured. In other words, it wasn’t as much the fact of ecstatic prophecy in the Montanist movement that made it heretical as it was the function which that prophecy served to create a new shared identity on a basis other than the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Hippolytus observed,

“They allege that they have learned something more through these [the three main leaders of the movement] than through the law, prophets and Gospels… They attach themselves more to the speeches of Montanus than to the Gospels.”[22]

Summary and Conclusion

When the charges leveled against the Montanists are investigated each as an isolated case, they all appear somewhat forced and the condemnation of the movement looks like either an overreaction or a conspiracy. But when each charge is investigated as part of a larger whole—that is, when each is viewed as a small window into a distinct and comprehensible worldview—then a coherent picture emerges and the wisdom of history is justified. For followers of the New Prophecy, the self-aggrandizing narrative of an imminent consummation to world history—a narrative which focused on their own headquarters as the center of God’s eschatological activity, a narrative confirmed by the charismatic authority of their founding leaders and reinforced by measures of extreme asceticism—this narrative had functionally eclipsed the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the primary source of their peculiar shared identity. This is what ultimately set them apart from the emerging Catholic church of the late second century. This is why they came to be identified more with the name of Montanus than the name of Christ.

The condemnation of Montanism thus stands as a cautionary tale to many would-be Christian movements throughout the world today. Prophecy is a gift to be earnestly desired, and the church desperately needs revival. But true revival is not about discovering something new and different. It’s not about moving beyond what God did in the past to something more, something fresh and unprecedented. True revival is about coming back to life. As the word implies, it assumes that the new thing God did already, once and for all through Jesus, is the great turning point of history and the lifeblood at the heart of every Spirit-breathed movement from Pentecost to the Parousia.


[1] William Tabbernee, Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 11-23.

[2] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy?,” Pneuma (Spring 1984): 70-71.

[3] David F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” Themelios 2.1 (1976): 16-17.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), 138.

[5] See, e.g., John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 88. It should be noted that none of the early opponents of Montanism claimed a cessation of prophecy in the church, and many of the fathers explicitly affirmed its continuance. Cf., D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 18.

[6] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 122.

[7] Ibid., 124.

[8] Ibid., 123.

[9] Ibid., 123-24.

[10] Fr. 11. All Montanist fragments are cited following the numbering of The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia, ed. Ronald E. Heine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989).

[11] Eusebius, Church History, 5.18.2.

[12] William Tabbernee, “Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: The Discovery of Pepouza and Tymion,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003): 87-93.

[13] See, e.g., D. E. Groh, “Utterance and Exegesis: Biblical Interpretation in the Montanist Crisis,” in The Living Text, ed. D. E. Groh and R. Jewett (New York: University Press of America, 1985), 80-81.

[14] Tertullian, On Monogamy, 14.

[15] Ibid., 3-4.

[16] On the Veiling of Virgins, 1

[17] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy,” 74.

[18] Fr. 6.

[19] Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “The Original Condemnation of Asian Montanism,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50 (1999), 3.

[20] Fr. 7.

[21] Fr. 8.

[22] D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 19.

Posted in Eschatology, Futurism, Hermeneutics, Worldviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Paul’s Radical Vision for Marriage: An Alternative Reading of Ephesians 5

Introduction

ImagePaul’s instruction on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33 forms one of the most beautiful and profound portrayals of the gospel in the New Testament, which probably accounts for its status as the most popular source material in Christian marriage vows. I often wonder, though, why traditional vows so often contain a line for both the bride and the groom about loving the other while only the bride’s vows contain a line about submission. Yes, Paul specifically instructs wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5, and he doesn’t say anything about husbands submitting to their wives. But he doesn’t tell wives to love their husbands either, and yet nobody assumes that means wives don’t need to love their husbands. In fact, Paul even introduces this whole paragraph by instructing everyone to submit to one another (v. 21).

So why is it so common to think of submission within marriage as the sole responsibility of the wife? For one significant reason. In both Ephesians 5:23 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 Paul says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. Traditionally this has been taken to mean that the husband is the “leader” or “authority” of his wife, so that Paul’s instruction to wives is based on the exclusive authority of the husband comparable to Christ’s authority over the church. This reading comes naturally in a patriarchal context where masculinity is defined mostly in terms of being tougher and more driven and femininity is defined mostly in terms of being more gentle and submissive.

Needless to say, there are some cultural assumptions that need to be teased out for us to properly understand Paul’s rationale. The traditionalist view of submission has come under intense scrutiny by recent scholarship, and many have pointed out that the dominant modern understanding of “headship” as “authority over” doesn’t accurately reflect Paul’s meaning. In fact, the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English lexicon, one of the most exhaustive lexicons of ancient Greek, does not include any definition of the word that approximates “leader” or “authority”. While it’s important to keep the debate focused on Paul’s own usage, we have to be careful to avoid interpretive colonialism, reading our cultural use of a metaphor onto Paul instead of allowing Paul’s language to carry the natural resonances of his own culture.

Headship: Authority or Source?

Even in our culture, we sometimes use “head” as a metaphor for authority (like the head of a corporation) and we sometimes use it as a metaphor for source or origin (like the head of a river). The question is, in Paul’s metaphorical use of the Greek word kephale, did it carry more the connotation of “authority over” or more the connotation of “source and origin”? Of course Paul calls women to submit to their husbands “for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church”—but is his reasoning that wives should submit to their husbands because man possesses an intrinsic authority over woman just as Christ has authority over the church, or that wives should submit to their husbands because man is the source of woman just as Christ is the source of the church?

I think it’s clearly the latter, and here’s why: Paul explains the headship of husbands here in comparison to the headship of Christ. In Colossians 1:18 Paul writes similarly that Christ “is the head of the church body of which he is the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, so that he himself may be first in everything.” Paul’s primary point throughout this passage (Col. 1:15-18) is to show that Jesus is the authority over everything because he is the creator, source, and beginning of everything—and when Paul uses the word kephale (head) in this context, it means “source and origin”.

In verse 15 Paul calls Jesus the “firstborn of all creation”, and then he explains what that means in verse 16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” In other words, being the “firstborn of all creation” means that Jesus is the source of all things, including all thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities. Verse 17 elaborates that he is “before all things” and “in him all things hold together”. So verses 15-17 deal with Christ’s authority over all of creation, and Paul’s logic is that Christ holds ultimate authority over everything because he is the ultimate source of everything.

Verse 18 then homes in on the church as God’s new creation in Christ. And the logic is the same: he is the “head”, the “beginning”, the “firstborn from the dead”—and notice the causal relationship here—“so that in everything he might be preeminent”. In other words, Paul’s logic is the same with Jesus’ authority over the church as it is with his authority over all of creation, and in both cases it is a source logic: Jesus is the origin and source of all creation, and he is the origin and source of the church, in order that he might have the first place as Lord. Note also what he says in 2:16, that Christ is “the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (cf., Eph. 4:15-16). When Paul says that Jesus is the head, he clearly means that he is the source.

ImageSo when Paul says that husbands are the head of their wives just as Christ is the head of the church, he does not mean that they are the authority of their wives but rather that they are the source of their wives. Besides Ephesians 5:23, Paul uses the metaphor of headship for husbands in one other place, 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” He explains what this means in verses 8 and 9 (after an interesting discussion about head coverings): “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”

Again, it’s crucial that we follow Paul’s logic. In both of the passages in which Paul speaks of a husband being the head of his wife he is thinking on the map of the creation account in Genesis 2, where Eve was made after Adam to be his “fit helper” or “strong equal”. Note that he quotes from it directly in Ephesians 5:31, and alludes to it in 1 Corinthians 11:8. So thinking on the map of Genesis 2, a husband is the source of his wife inasmuch as woman was created from man to be his helper, the joint-ruler of creation, and not vice versa. This source logic in the creation account is the foundation for a husband’s authority over his wife, just as being the “head” (the source of everything) is the foundation for Christ’s authority over everything. But in neither case does the metaphor of headship itself speak of authority.

Mutual Headship

Now, at first glance that might seem like a relatively insignificant distinction to make. But for Paul it makes all the difference in the world, because in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, just after explaining that man is the source and origin of woman, he quickly points out that woman is now the source of man.

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

This is where the analogy between Christ’s headship and a husband’s headship breaks down for Paul. Christ is before everything, the “first cause” so to speak, but man and woman are now mutually interdependent, mutually the source of one another, so that they share mutual authority over one another. So if headship means source and origin, and man is the source of woman but woman is also the source of man, then what Paul gives us here is a theological foundation for mutual headship and mutual submission. Just as man is the source of woman, so woman is now the source of man, and therefore neither sex is independent of or preeminent above the other.

Going back and reading Ephesians 5 in this light, verse 21 appears much more significant: “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Just as Paul’s instruction for husbands to love their wives doesn’t mean that wives don’t have to love their husbands, so his instruction for wives to submit to their husbands doesn’t mean that husbands don’t have to submit to their wives. Because just as man is the head of woman, so woman is also the head of man.

If you want to see how Paul fleshes out this ethic of mutual submission between husbands and wives, read 1 Corinthians 7:1-4. “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Some would wish to argue, of course, that because the submission of husbands to wives in this text is focused on their sexuality, that is the only sphere in which wives have authority over their husbands. But I think that’s pretty ridiculous. Why would a wife only have authority over her husband’s body and not over the rest of him as well? In the ancient world sex was just one more way for men to assert their dominance over women. Therefore, in saying that a wife also has authority over her husband’s body, Paul was cutting at the heart of that culture’s patriarchal values and replacing it with an ethic of mutual submission and service between husbands and wives. And thus the principle behind Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7 can and should be applied elsewhere in marriage beyond sexuality.

So yes, I am called to be the primary covering and authority over my wife, to serve her and protect her and empower her, etc. But she is called to be all of that for me as well. When we vowed to love and serve each other as God’s image bearers, that vow included a commitment to subvert the dehumanizing caricatures of masculinity and femininity within our fallen world by striving mutually to show initiative, leadership, and strength, as well as patience, gentleness, empathy, and submission.

Posted in Women in Ministry | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 2)

lamb on throneBefore the Millennium

Revelation 20 doesn’t stand on its own. Within the narrative of John’s vision, the millennium is preceded by the judgment of the “beast” (the Roman Empire) and the “false prophet” (the Caesar Cult) in 19:11-21. Traditionally, the thousand-year reign of Revelation 20 has been defined by its relation to Christ’s second advent, which most readers have located in chapter 19. But is that what John intended? Does the vision of the rider on the white horse refer to the same climactic event which we see in places like Acts 1:11 and 1 Thessalonians 4:18, that is, the bodily return of Christ? I don’t believe so.

At this point even most amillennialists have been guilty of confusing the visionary and symbolical levels of the text with the referential level by their insistence that this scene portrays a more or less literal forecast of historical events. Clearly, the messianic portrait of 19:11-16 has a more direct correspondence to its referent than the vision of the slain lamb in chapter 5, since it describes Christ with the physical characteristics of a human being. But both descriptions are symbolic in the sense that they are visionary images written up with multiple echoes of biblical and post-biblical tradition, which means that we should not assume photographic realism as much as impressionistic and kaleidoscopic depictions of reality. John’s visionary experience contains images and narrative that represent, i.e. are symbolic, of things and events that existed, exist, or will exist in the real world. But his experience and the images themselves should not be confused with the realities which they represent.

On this note, R. J. McKelvey points out that many of the commonest features of the early parousia tradition, and the OT passages from which they came, are absent from Revelation 19—like the motifs of a cloud theophany, a great trumpet call, the gathering of the saints, and (most significantly) the restoration of creation (McKelvey 78-9). Instead, John’s portrait draws primarily from the “Divine Warrior” passages throughout the OT, a tradition expressed most often in connection with the judgment of nations within continuing history (e.g. Psalm 2; Isa. 63; Ezek. 1; Hab. 3). John has combined that Jewish tradition with the Greco-Roman portrait of a victory procession (e.g. the white horse and red robe) in order to parody the pomp of Rome and boldly proclaim its downfall (Fee 274). The inability of most commentators to see anything but the physical return of Jesus in this passage is a sign of the wide cultural gap that exists between the literary norms of our world and the prophetic tradition which was John’s native language.

The Roaring Lamb

Beyond the question of John’s intended referent in Revelation 19:11-21, there is also the question of its theology. Scholars often debate whether this scene portrays retributive judgment or nonviolent triumph, but I think this presents a false dichotomy. Revelation’s theology of judgment is shaped by the cross, so that God’s wrath upon injustice is released by the lamb who was slain. Jesus triumphed over his oppressors through allowing them to do their worst to him, but Jesus himself seems to have believed that this nonviolent response contained within it the retributive judgment of God—by allowing his oppressors to commit themselves to a cycle of violence which would eventually come back upon their own heads, as the judgment of God in the form of a military invasion (e.g. Luke 19:41-44; 23:28-31; John 12:31).

Revelation is permeated with this same cruciform theology of judgment. Just as John sees God’s victory over Satan in the sufferings of the crucified Messiah (Rev. 5:5-6; 7:9-10; 12:7-11), so also he sees God’s victory over Rome, Satan’s earthly representative, through the sufferings of those who “follow the lamb wherever he goes” and conquer “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:7-11; 14:4; cf. 20:4). While the visionary image in 19:11-21 is of a messianic army dressed in white and conquering the enemy by a giant flying sword, the historical referent of the image is the triumph of Jesus’ testimony, borne out by the martyrs, over the idolatry of the Empire and the Imperial Cult—a retributive judgment through nonviolent resistance. Coals of fire are heaped upon the head of the beast and his followers through the faithful witness of those who refuse to take his mark or worship his image.

While this scene of judgment meets the faithful as a promise of vindication, however, it meets others as an urgent call to repentance (cf. 3:2-3; 16:15). This passage forms the angelic response to the embarrassing episode of 19:10, in which John himself nearly succumbs to the lure of idolatry. As the seer, John stands as the representative of the churches which he addresses, and his stumbling thus stands as a warning for them; the vision of the rider on the white horse reveals how God will respond to those who do not repent of their idolatry. As Jesus said to the church in Pergamum, prefiguring this scene: “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (2:16).

The Binding of the Dragon

Following John’s narrative into 20:1-3, we are warned once more not to confuse the visionary and symbolical levels with the referential level by simply picturing Satan himself bound in chains and imprisoned for a thousand years. To imagine this, and to thereby speak (as both amillennialists and premillennialists are guilty of doing) of the binding of Satan, runs the risk of a gross confusion of categories. Satan is not bound in Revelation 20; the dragon which represents Satan is bound. If we read the text historically, the binding and imprisonment of the dragon most naturally refers to the removal of the deceiving power which Satan held over the nations through the religion of Rome. The dragon is called “the deceiver of the whole world” in 12:9 and 20:3, and according to 13:14 it is through the false prophet (who looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon) that he “deceives those who dwell on the earth, telling them to make an image for the beast.” With the judgment of Rome and the end of the idolatrous Caesar Cult, therefore, Satan’s primary seat of authority is removed, his hands and feet tied, so that Jesus’ testimony can shine forth unhindered.

Thus, with Daniel 7 as his backdrop, John is showing that the suffering of the saints carries greater weight in God’s court than the brutal strength of Empire, and that through their witness the case of their accuser is reversed so that he, and not they, will eventually suffer the sentence of imprisonment and death (cf. 13:10). This reading also makes for a coherent interpretation of Satan’s release at the end of the millennium (which, incidentally, the standard amillennial reading fails to do): the point is that once again, just like in the first century, there will be a widespread, systemic intolerance to the gospel of the Messiah, as well as a virulent attack against the covenant community that bears and proclaims his name.

The Verdict of Heaven

After the judgment of the beast and the imprisonment of the dragon, John then shows us the other side of the great reversal of fortunes: the vindication of the martyrs (20:4-6). One of the primary questions modern interpreters ask at this point is whether John has all the saints in mind or only the martyrs, but McKelvey is right to point out that this question probably never entered John’s head (82). The prospective martyrs are obviously the party in view here, but within John’s visionary world there are only two parties: those who worship the beast and those who don’t and thereby suffer under his hand (13:15). The martyrs are not presented here as a sub-group of the larger community of faith, but rather as visionary representatives of the whole community portrayed in juxtaposition with the followers of the beast.

But where does this vindication take place? Isn’t it obvious that the millennial kingdom is an earthly kingdom? For several reasons, I believe the answer is a most decisive no. We note first that all of the descriptions of earthly restoration in the closing passages of John’s vision are to be found in the “new heaven and new earth” of chapters 21-22, and not in the “thousand years” of chapter 20. There is no indication of a progressive restoration of the earth or of a return to the promise land in chapter 20, just as there is no rebuilt Jerusalem and no rebuilt Temple (Hill 237-8). Especially considering John’s many allusions to the OT—which constitute our single greatest aid in understanding the way that he, the seer, understood his own vision—it is remarkable that he does not allude to any of the OT passages which have long been labeled “millennial” by both premillennialists and postmillennialists in his write-up of the millennium. In fact, John consistently saves such earthly associations for the post-millennial and eternal new earth of chapters 21-22.

On top of this, we note that the heavenly courtroom scene of Daniel 7:9-14 stands behind the vindication of the martyrs in Revelation 20:4-6. In that famous passage, “one like a son of man” is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and is given dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. That scene largely forms the OT background behind the vision of Revelation 4-5 as well, where John sees the risen Christ enter the heavenly throne room and receive the authority to complete God’s eschatological plan (note also the parallel in 12:5-12, where the male child is “caught up to God and his throne” and, after the dragon is cast to the earth, a loud voice in heaven proclaims that “the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come”).

But the point is this: if the heavenly scene of Daniel 7 stands behind chapters 4-5, where Christ receives his kingly authority in heaven, then it stands to reason that the martyr’s vindication in 20:4-6 itself belongs in heaven. This is confirmed twice over; first, by the appearance of “thrones” in v. 4, which almost everywhere else in Revelation belong in heaven; and, second, by the parallel scenes of heavenly vindication in 7:9-17, 11:11-13, and 15:2-4.

The Proto-Resurrection

One final point, which I believe puts the nail in the coffin of an earthly interpretation of Revelation 20:4-6, is the argument set forth by M. G. Kline in his article “The First Resurrection”. The crux of the argument is that throughout Revelation 20-21 the word translated “first” or “former” (protos) is consistently used to qualify things which belong to the pre-consummate order, in contrast to those things which are “new”, i.e. consummate. In Hellenistic Greek protos often had the sense of “former” in contrast with “latter”, or the first of two (e.g., Matt. 27:64; 1 Cor. 15:45-47; Heb. 8:13; 10:9). In Revelation 21:1-5 the word “first” is employed in juxtaposition with “new”: the consummation of history brings “a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1), and a “new Jerusalem” (v. 2); indeed, it is the time when the Creator God makes “all things new” (v. 5)—and when the word “first” appears throughout the passage, it is used to speak of that which is superseded by the “new”. It may be good to see the words side by side to get the effect.

“Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the first things have passed away… Behold I make all things new.”

In light of this contextual meaning of protos, Kline argues that we should not understand the “first resurrection” as denoting simply the first of the same kind in a temporal sequence of two, but rather a preliminary and inferior sort of resurrection to the ultimate bodily resurrection of the new order. It is a proto-resurrection, an anticipatory coming to life of the faithful souls in heaven as they await the new life of the consummation.

This is confirmed by observing the relationship between the first resurrection and the second death. The “second death” is not simply the loss of physical life which every person must experience, but rather a death after death, an ultimate death reserved for the wicked (20:14-15). Likewise, the “first resurrection” is not simply the return to bodily life which John envisions for all of humanity (20:12), but rather a resurrection before resurrection, a preliminary coming to life reserved for those who were faithful unto death, who are now blessed and holy because they are exempt from the power of the second death (20:6). In other words, when John speaks of the second death and the first resurrection, he is in both cases explaining a lesser known reality (eternal punishment and the heavenly intermediate state) by the terms of a more commonly known reality (death and resurrection). In both cases the adjective modifies the noun as carrying a metaphorical meaning. In the case of the “second death” it lets the reader know that this is a more ultimate destruction beyond what we normally refer to as death. In the case of the “first resurrection” it lets the reader know that this is a preliminary stage of life which is anticipatory to what we normally refer to as resurrection.

The point though, within the narrative of Revelation 20, is that these souls are seen as being alive in spite of having been killed by the beast. The focus of the passage is on their position in contrast with the position of the beast and the dragon and the wicked dead. Their fate is thereby contrasted with the fate of the beast, who ironically goes alive to the “second death”. If we do not bias the case a priori by the clumsy application of a literalist hermeneutic, then I think this reading clearly has the evidence in its favor.

The Meaning of the Millennium

Now, with all of the above in mind, we note that this passage looks back in fulfillment to the promise to the persecuted overcomers in 2:8-11. When John tells the saints in Smyrna to “be faithful until death” so that they will not be hurt by the “second death,” he is directly alluding to the later part of his vision in which the souls of the martyrs “come to life” and reign with Christ for a thousand years, thereby being exempt from the “second death” (20:4-6). In receiving this admonishment from Christ, the struggling saints in Smyrna would be uniquely comforted by the vision of the millennial reign and strengthened to stand fast in the face of persecution. The two passages belong together as promise and fulfillment, which points to at least one dimension of the numerical symbolism of the millennium.

We recall that the saints of Smyrna were told that Satan would be allowed to throw some of them into prison, in order to test them, for ten days (2:10). After the judgment of the beast, however, John sees the dragon himself thrown into the prison of the bottomless pit, not for ten days, but for the greatly multiplied number of a thousand years. Since the number ten represents totality or completion throughout Revelation (e.g., 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16), and because of the innertextual relationship between the millennium and the promise to the suffering saints in Smyrna, the “thousand years” very likely represents an intensification or heightening of the imprisonment period of 2:10 according to the law of retribution in kind, or lex talionis.

In other words, the purpose of the numerical symbolism, in its immediate application to the suffering Christians in Asia Minor, is to strengthen the conviction that their momentary light affliction is working the far exceeding glory of resurrection life, a great reversal of fortunes to be rewarded at the throne of the risen Messiah, even prior to their being clothed with new bodies at his return. The number may carry further meaning, but this is its most explicit reference.

Conclusion: Promise or Warning?

In light of all of the above, we conclude that John’s vision of the millennium presents the promise of life to the faithful and a powerful warning to those colluding with idolatry. It pulls back the curtain of history and shows the heavenly antitype to the tyrannous reign of Rome, the preliminary vindication of the suffering saints, and their participation in the priestly reign of the Messiah in anticipation of the day when he makes all things new. This view is thus markedly different from the classic expressions of the three main schools of thought. Instead of trying to create a synthesized eschatological timeline out of John’s vision, it focuses on the purpose of the vision itself in its original historical context. There can be little doubt that the suffering saints of Asia Minor would have received the vision as a promise of reward aimed directly at them, as they faced the prospect of imprisonment and possibly even of death for the sake of staying true to Christ. Whether the vision meets us now as promise or warning depends entirely on where we stand in relation to the testimony of Jesus.

______________

Fee, Gordon D. Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011.

Hill, Charles E. Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kline, Meredith G. “The First Resurrection.” WTJ 37 (1974/75): 366-75. Print.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

Posted in Eschatology, Futurism, Hermeneutics, Revelation, The Millennium | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

The Millennium Revisited: A Revolutionary Reading of Revelation 20 (Part 1)

poly_with_satanIntroduction: Why the Millennium Matters

When Charles Ryrie wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of the millennium for Dallas Theological Seminary in the late 1940s, he tellingly titled it The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, implying from the outset that other millennial views reflect a very different sort of faith. Similarly, in his classic text The Millennial Kingdom, John Walvoord explains that “millennialism is a determining factor in Biblical interpretation of comparable importance to the doctrines of verbal inspiration, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection” (16). Of course, we find the idea of a thousand-year reign explicitly mentioned only once in Scripture. Like the creation narrative of Genesis 1, however, the millennium of Revelation 20 has often become a convenient staging ground for larger ideological battles which in fact have little or nothing to do with the exegesis of the chapter itself.

My aim in this study is to try to move past some of the noise of those battles in order to hear afresh what the vision would have meant both to the seer himself and to the seven churches which he addressed. My contention is that the preoccupation of most interpreters with the goal of finding a synthesized eschatological timeline—whether premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial—has only served to obscure the specific function which the passage holds in relation to the rest of John’s vision, which is something much more powerful and challenging than any timeline. I will argue that Revelation 20 must be read in the context of the struggling churches which comprised its original audience, and I will seek to demonstrate that for John and his first-century audience these verses promised the imminent, preliminary vindication of those who followed the Lamb unto death in resistance against the idolatrous and oppressive ideology of the Roman Empire. This chapter contains a vitally important message for the church, but it’s not the message that has preoccupied and divided Christians for centuries.

Before engaging directly with the text, however, we must first address an underlying issue of hermeneutics. The way we read any text is defined to a large extent by the assumptions we make about it. We don’t read a love song or a poem the same way that we read a biology textbook or a newspaper. So how should we read the book of Revelation? Is it mostly a literal description of history written in advance, a spiritual perspective on the battle between God and Satan throughout history, or something else?

The Anatomy of John’s Apocalypse

In one of the most important studies on the subject in recent years, Vern Poythress has argued that a proper reading of Revelation must distinguish between at least four different levels of communication: (1) the linguistic level, consisting in what John wrote and thus involving his own interpretive perspective and authorial creativity; (2) the visionary level, consisting in what John experienced when he was “in the Spirit”; (3) the referential level, consisting in the actual historical realities that the various images speak of; and (4) the symbolical level, consisting in how the visionary images speak of reality and what meaning they give to it by describing it in the ways that they do. Thus, when we read the text of Revelation 5:5-8, for instance, we must distinguish between what John wrote (the interpretive description of his vision with its many echoes of the OT), what John saw (a slaughtered yet living lamb, with seven horns and seven eyes, standing on the throne), what that refers to (the crucified and risen Jesus exalted to God’s right hand), and what significance the imagery lends to its referent (that the cross of Christ is central to the advancement of God’s eschatological purposes).

Recognizing the presence of these four distinct levels of communication throughout John’s vision is imperative for understanding its meaning. Much confusion over the symbolism of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature stems from a more basic confusion over different types of “meaning” (Caird 37-61). When interpreters talk about the meaning of an apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely distinguish between “meaning” in terms of (1) intention, “meaning” in terms of (2) experience, “meaning” in terms of (3) referent, and “meaning” in terms of (4) significance. Of course, it’s simple enough to recognize those various levels with a text like Revelation 5:5-8, as we saw above, but it’s easy to forget when dealing with many other images throughout Revelation, not least the notorious thousand-year reign of 20:1-6.

When it comes to the millennium, futurists regularly collapse the second and fourth levels (the visionary experience and the larger meaning or significance) into the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world), and so they boldly proclaim that an image such as the binding of the dragon must speak of a literal incarceration of Satan, as if Satan was actually a dragon and John was simply witnessing history in advance (Poythress 44-5). But if the genre of Revelation tells us anything, it is that John is less interested in giving reportorial precision on historical reality than he is in giving a heavenly perspective on its significance.

On the other hand, however, idealists are often guilty of collapsing the third level (what the experience refers to in the real world) into the fourth level (the implied meaning or significance that the experience carries), and so they often speak of the meaning of an image, like the “beast” of 13:1-8, as timeless and applicable to the church’s whole experience between Jesus ascension and his return, without any one specific referent. To this we must say, along with George Caird, that the “failure to identify the referent is bound to diminish our understanding of the sense, which is then left hanging in the air” (55).

The False Safety of Literalism

But how do we identify the referent? By what guiding principle should our interpretations be anchored? Here is where the great appeal of futurism lies, for it gives the simplest answer to this question. Influenced by the wider modernist reaction to the allegorical excesses of medieval exegesis, futurists generally default to interpreting Revelation’s imagery in a more or less literal way. This “literal if possible” hermeneutic is made explicit by Robert L. Thomas, who says that the only approach that is “fair and consistent” is to assume that the images of Revelation “have a literal meaning unless otherwise indicated in the text” (35-7).

The underlying assumption behind the literalist argument is that if we allow the language of Scripture to be interpreted non-literally we will then lose all hope of ever getting at its true historical meaning, because we can make it mean virtually whatever we want it to. This assumption is expressed, to varying degrees, even by many non-dispensational premillennialists. Thus Jack Deere, when considering various amillennial interpretations of Revelation 20:4-6, dismisses the idea of a symbolic resurrection with the assertion that “they use an allegorical technique which produces interpretations that are diverse and limited only by one’s fantasy” (Deere 66).

Granted, this fear is justified to some degree by the ahistorical way that many have interpreted the symbolism of prophecy throughout the history of the church (Clouse 117-41). But the literalist method is in fact an extremely ironic stance to take, for it often keeps interpreters from reading biblical prophecy in the way that it asks to be read, grammatically and historically. Like American tourists looking for fast-food fries in France, modern readers often come to the book of Revelation with an entirely wrong idea of what to expect in a piece of literature calling itself an apocalypse. Interpreting Revelation, or any literature from a culture other than our own, takes great care and is always a matter of delicate subtlety.

But if we are sensitive to the text, we must admit that it contains many symbolic expressions that are never clearly explained as such. John never clearly indicates that the “lamb” is not an actual sheep, for instance, or that the “beast” is not an actual monster. But despite our modern predisposition towards literal interpretation, we all understand these expressions to represent something other than the images used to convey them. Why? Because they are obvious to us. But given the fact that these examples already force us to make exceptions to the rule of the literalist method, what basis do we have for insisting that there aren’t other instances of unexplained symbols in Revelation? In tested practice, the principle of “literal if possible” turns out to be an extremely blunt instrument which inevitably fulfills its own fears of subjectivity.

The biggest problem plaguing most popular interpretations of the book of Revelation is that they are not nearly as interested in understanding what the text would have meant in its original historical context as they are in what it can be seen to mean for our own time. While most futurist interpreters assume that the meaning of Revelation will become clearer as the end times approach, generally with the implication we are now at the beginning of that period, the text itself is addressed to seven churches in first-century Asia Minor and intends to speak openly to their contemporary situation (Kraybill 26). Thus, the primary concern of the interpreter should be centered on the authorial intent and the public meaning which the imagery would have carried in the period in which it was given. The true interpretation is not necessarily the one which carries the most perceived value or spiritual application in the twenty-first century, but rather the one which best explains the text as it would have been understood by its original audience. It is the historical method, not the literalist method, that provides the guiding principle to which our interpretations must be anchored.

Reading Revelation Historically: Preliminary Conclusions

Two observations follow immediately from this approach. First, there is now a widespread agreement amongst scholars that the “beast from of the sea” refers to the Roman Empire, and that the “beast from the land” (also called the “false prophet”) refers to the religion of the Emperor which thrived throughout the cities of Asia Minor (McKelvey 67-8). The main issue at stake was whether John’s audience would continue to worship the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, or succumb instead to the mounting pressure and bow the knee to Caesar (Kraybill 23). If they refused to participate in the Caesar Cult then they would have to face the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, and perhaps even death (cf., 2:10, 13). Thus John writes in order to comfort and admonish them to stand strong in the face of this great pressure and to persevere through the coming “hour of trial” which he sees by the Spirit just over the horizon.

Second, once we recognize the contemporary situation of John’s audience, we can easily understand why the crisis envisioned throughout the book is repeatedly qualified as being “near” and “at hand”. We should not understand such statements in the weak and indefinite sense suggested by a doctrine of perpetual imminence, but in the very real historical sense that the original audience would have undoubtedly understood them. In 22:10 John is told not to seal the words of the vision which he received, because “the time is at hand”. This phrase forms an inclusio with the introduction, where John’s audience is told to keep the words of the prophecy “for the time is at hand” (1:3). On top of this, the phrase “do not seal the words” is an ironic allusion to Daniel 8 and 12, where the prophet Daniel is told to “seal up” the words of his own visions and “go your way” because they refer to a time “many days in the future”, i.e. beyond Daniel’s own generation (Dan 8:26; 12:4, 9, 13). The explicit point in Revelation 22:10 is therefore the exact opposite: unlike Daniel, John is told not to “seal up” the words of his prophecy, because they refer to a great ordeal coming upon his own generation.

All of this context is necessary for an appropriate understanding of the millennium. Now that the ground has been cleared, we are ready to discuss the text of Revelation 20 and its place within the literary narrative of John’s vision. The proof of the reading for which I will argue in the next post will be how well it adheres to the principles discussed above.

_________________

Caird, G. B. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, 1980.

Clouse, Robert G. The Meaning of the Millennium. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977.

Deere, Jack S. “Premillennialism in Revelation 20:4-6.” Bsac 135 (1978) 58-73.

Grenz, Stanley J. The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out the Evangelical Options. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001.

Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

McKelvey, R. J. The Millennium and the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 1999.

Poythress, Vern S. “Genre and Hermeneutics in Revelation 20:1-6.” JETS 36 (1993): 41-54. Print.

Thomas, Robert L. Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

Walvoord, John E. The Millennial Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.

Posted in Eschatology, Futurism, Hermeneutics, Revelation, The Millennium | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment