Puhleeze. Thousands of dead birds and fish in Arkansas do not make the Second Coming imminent.
Timing is everything. My wife is launching another round of Beth Moore Bible studies with several hundred people signing up; this one is on the book of Revelation. In John Ortberg’s book, When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box, he writes about his wife and the ministry she had with twenty-somethings and comments, “When you’re that age, you think you are going to live forever. I used to tease her that to draw a lot of people, she only had to teach on three subjects: sex, the end times, and will there be sex in the end times?”
When classes gear up for a study on Revelation, some of us pastors get nervous…because of how passionate, self-assured and dogmatic students can become. I offered my wife a bit of a disclaimer, or at least an open letter to attendees of the classes. And, in some respects, present a “white paper” from Vineyard Cincinnati.
And that’s what follows…
The Book of Revelation (not Revelations) is a fascinating, difficult, exhilarating and, let’s be honest, frustrating book. Probably no other book has been so dissected and misused…and created such debate. Practically every verse can be argued, starting with the very first one: “The revelation of Jesus Christ”—is that a revelation regarding Him or a revelation given through Him? Apparently the Greek suggests that Jesus could be either the subject being revealed or the one doing the revealing.
It is filled with Old Testament imagery: dragons and plagues and signs in the skies. It’s written like other New Testament letters, that is, with salutations and a closing, yet it is the only book that identifies itself as a prophecy. While other letters may contain prophetic elements, Revelation affirms itself as a prophecy.
Let me first start of with a pastoral disclaimer (which is offered by every teacher of Revelation except the ones in denial): there was a time when I had this all figured out. it was three months after I became a Christian and had just read The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey in 1974. I was positive the locusts were helicopters. Now, after thirty-six years of following Jesus, I know very little with absolute certainty except that He’s God, He loves me more than I love Him, He has rescued my life from self-destruction, I will one day be with Him, and He has called me to pastor the Vineyard.
Some time ago a friend asked me if I was a premillennialist, postmillennialist or amillennialist. That has to do with when you place the timing of Jesus’ Second Coming in regard to a one-thousand-year peaceful period on the earth...or if that is an indefinite period of time at all. I told my friend it depends what week you ask me.
Why, you may ask, would we want to study a book that has been so widely interpreted by respected evangelical scholars, all who loved Jesus and upheld the authority of scripture? Why don’t we just study the beatitudes? Let me give you three quick reasons:
1. Because all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (II Timothy 3:16, 17).
2. We learn more about worship and the majesty of Jesus Christ than perhaps any other book.
3. There is a pronounced blessing on those who read or hear it.
There are four classic views, or approaches, to interpreting the revelation. Every one of them has questions, difficulties and problems not easily solved. And take note: far smarter, studious and devoted people than you and me have aligned their neurons and hearts with each one. A little humility in approaching this book is advised.
Historicist Approach: the book of Revelation records the whole of church history. Wycliffe, Knox, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Foxe, Wesley, Whitefield, Finney, Spurgeon all subscribed to this view. For example, the breaking of the seven seals is thought to coincide with barbarian invasions of the western Roman empire. In 1690, Robert Fleming (Scottish Calvinist theologian) was invited to the court of King William III to speak on Bible prophecy. When asked when the rule of the papacy in Europe would fall, he said beginning in 1794 and ending in 1848. In 1794 the French Revolution began and in 1848 the pope was driven from Rome…all according to Revelation, in his interpretation, and its rollout of church history.
Preterist Approach: All was fulfilled shortly after the writing. For example, some of the historical accounts of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. are compelling: “The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar; a stream of blood flowed down the Temple's steps, and the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom.” ~Jewish historian Josephus, on the destruction of the Temple. Preterists lean on the literal words of Jesus in Matthew 24:34: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Some preterists hold out for the final chapters as being in the future.
Futurist Approach: Everything after chapter three is yet to be fulfilled. Futurists often see all of Revelation in a more literal, linear and chronological fashion. Although held by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian (although it could be argued how far into the future they saw it), it came into vogue in the twentieth century particularly with the advent of evangelical dispensational theology. This view was espoused by Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible and theologians like Walvoord and Ryrie. And, of course, Tim LaHaye popularized it in the Left Behind bestsellers.
Idealist/Spiritual Approach: The book of Revelation is filled with spiritual principles and theme; a transcendent drama is revealed. This is not necessarily just a “liberal” theology; the ancient Church Fathers Origen and Augustine largely subscribed to this view. “Revelation is a theological poem presenting the ageless struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. It is a philosophy of history wherein Christian forces are continuously meeting and conquering the demonic forces of evil.” ~Robert Mounce.
To understand Revelation fully we should keep in mind that it is addressed to a particular group of people with particular needs at the time. It is also written in the style of apocalyptic literature, a popular style during John’s time, but fairly obscure now.
“A failure to take full account of this feature has led to some of the most outlandish teachings on this book by some whose rule of interpretation is “literal, unless absurd.” Though this is a good rule when dealing with literature written in a literal genre, it is the exact opposite in the case of apocalyptic literature, where symbolism is the rule, and literalism the exception.” ~Steve Gregg: Revelation; Four Views
For instance, in this style numbers often represent concepts rather than quantitative measurements—seven churches, seals, trumpets, bowls, thunders etc. Fractions of twelve are used. Arguably, one-thousand years could simply mean a very long time where “one hour” (Rev. 17:12) could mean a short, nonspecific time. There were lots of apocalyptic books at the time.
“The problem is raised by the fact that the prophets were little interested in chronology, and the future was always viewed as eminent...the Old Testament prophets blended the near and the distant perspectives so as to form a single canvas...There is in biblical prophecy a tension between the immediate and the distant future; the distant is viewed through the transparency of the immediate. It is true that the early church lived in expectancy of the return of the Lord, and it is the nature of biblical prophecy to make it possible for every generation to live in expectancy of the end.” ~G. E. Ladd
The Vineyard Movement (and Vineyard Cincinnati) doesn’t “officially” hold a particular stance on the four typical views. Because of the varied pastoral/Biblical training of the pastors in this local church, we could have a spirited discussion just among the senior leadership team!
Because of this, we hope you’ll dig in for yourself…and take opportunity to explore the various views with an open heart. Very wise followers of Jesus, theologians and Bible teachers have held different views. And what may happen in the end is we all might have a surprise or two in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Usually prophecies are never fully understood until the event happens…and looking different than what we expect. Case in point: very few recognized Jesus as the Messiah according to prophecy…but through the 20/20 lens of hindsight, it makes sense now.
One thing for sure: worship Jesus, love others, feel an urgency to share the Good News of the Kingdom, and live life as if tomorrow could be the day…and you’ll do well.