Category Archives: Difficult Bible Passages

How Does Premillennialist Norman Geisler Interpret Revelation 20?

Norm Geisler, in Systematic Theology, vol. 4, Church, Last Things, asserts that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 must refer to a literal, future period of time that lasts a thousand years.  “A historical-grammatical reading of this passage informs us that there will be a literal Millennium, during which Satan is bound, beginning with the raising of the saved and ending with the raising of the lost.”

Geisler offers several reasons why the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 should be taken as a literal, future period of time.  First, the word thousand is mentioned several times in Revelation 20.  “Facts mentioned only once in the Bible are true; the future messianic kingdom is said to be a thousand years long six times in Revelation 20:1-7.”  Surely, the repetition of this time period undermines the non-literal position.  Second, Geisler admits that the word thousand is sometimes used symbolically in the Bible.  “However, of its hundred-plus occurrences in the biblical text, only a handful are non-literal, and even these are mostly hyperbole (not allegorical).”

Third, Geisler reasons that “other numbers in Revelation are used literally; for example, 1,260 days (12:6) is a literal three and one-half years (Dan. 12:7, 11).”  Given that other numbers are used literally in the book, the argument for symbolism is weakened.  Fourth, even “symbols refer to something literal, as indicated by John’s literal interpretation of symbolic usage (e.g., 1:20).”  One must always be careful in taking symbolism too far, because ultimately every symbol stands for something real and literal.  There is the sign (the symbol) and there is the thing signified (the literal object).  The less clearly the sign points to the thing signified, the greater chance for interpretational error.  In our human experience, most signs relate very directly and obviously to the things they signify.  The term “thousand years” is more likely to refer to a literal thousand-year period of time than to refer to perfection or completeness.  The onus must be on the symbolic interpreter to provide strong evidence for his view.

Fifth, a literal interpretation accords with Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 that “Christ’s earthly reign would be a long period of time with an end.”  Sixth and finally, “Literal numbers can have symbolic significance – Israel was tested for forty years in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4), and while there is a symbolic meaning to this time of wandering, it is also true that they literally wandered for about forty years.  Relatedly, thousand can symbolize a long period and still be literally true.”

John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, in , add that the sequence of events surrounding the “thousand years” also indicate a literal, future time period.  “The fact that it is mentioned six times and is clearly described as a period of time before which and after which events take place lead to the conclusion that it means a literal thousand-year period.”  Specifically they contend that the reference to Satan being bound for a thousand years is an important clue.  According to Walvoord and Zuck, “Throughout the Scriptures Satan is said to exert great power not only against the world but also against Christians (Acts 5:3; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Tim. 1:20).”  It seems difficult to argue that Satan’s influence today is somehow curtailed or restrained.  The clinching verse which demonstrates that Satan was certainly attacking believers in the first century, after Christ’s death and resurrection, is 1 Peter 5:8.  “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  If Satan is indeed not bound, then it seems difficult to understand the “thousand years” as occurring today.

With both amillennialists and premillennialists claiming to use the historical-grammatical hermeneutical method, and with both groups arriving at widely divergent conclusions, there is another group of people that we should consult about Revelation 20.  In general, the closer in time Person A is to Person B, the more accurately will Person A interpret the writings of Person B, all other things being equal.  Augustine wrote about the book of Revelation about three centuries after it was written by the apostle John.  As mentioned before, Augustine’s position on the Apocalypse has dominated the church since he wrote about it in The City of God.  There are church fathers, however, who lived closer to the time of John and who wrote about Revelation.

The earliest known interpretation of the thousand years of Revelation came from a bishop named Papias, who was a contemporary of the apostles in the first century.  Eusebius, the great church historian of the fourth century, wrote about Papias in his seminal work, The Church History.  Eusebius quotes Papias from his Sayings of the Lord Interpreted, which is no longer extant.  Papias claims to have heard directly from those who sat under the teaching of several of the apostles.  “And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the elders, I asked about their words: what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples . . . .  For I did not think that information from books would help me as much as the word of a living, surviving voice.”

Papias’ views on the book of Revelation would indeed be important because of his close proximity to the source of the book, John (who is mentioned above).  According to Eusebius, Papias believed that “after the resurrection of the dead there will be a thousand-year period when the kingdom of Christ will be established on this earth in material form.”  Eusebius also maintained that Papias’ views on the thousand years were highly regarded by some subsequent church fathers because of his proximity to the disciples.  Lest anyone think that Eusebius was biased in favor of Papias’ interpretation, Eusebius had this to say about Papias: “I suppose that he got these notions by misunderstanding the apostolic accounts, not realizing that they had used mystic and symbolic language.  For he was a man of very limited intelligence, as is clear from his books.”  We can be confident that Eusebius’ “respect” for Papias did not color his interpretation of Papias’ writings, for Eusebius was an amillennialist even before Augustine.  With all due respect to Eusebius’ estimation of Papias’ intelligence, Papias is one of the earliest, if not earliest, sources we have interpreting Revelation 20, and he was a premillennialist.

In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr, one of the most renowned early apologists of the Christian faith, wrote about the book of Revelation.  He is the first to explicitly mention the Revelation in his Dialogue with Trypho.[14]  “And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.”[15]  Justin Martyr was certainly a premillennialist and believed that the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 was to be taken literally as the future, messianic kingdom on earth.

Later in the second century the church father, Irenaeus, made “frequent and substantive use of the Revelation, especially in book 5 of Against Heresies, where he extensively discourses upon the thousand-year reign of Christ upon the earth.”  Speaking of the predicted, messianic, thousand-year kingdom, Irenaeus related the following:

The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon their rising from the dead; when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth: as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him how the Lord used to teach in regard to these times.

Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Papias, the earliest commentators on the book of Revelation, all believed that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 should be taken as a literal, thousand-year, earthly kingdom of Christ.  It cannot be argued, based upon this evidence, that the premillennial view is proven, but it does lend significant credibility to the view.  If the earliest hearers and interpreters of the text understood it to be literal, surely the later amillennialists have a more difficult position to argue.  How is it that these, the earliest commentators in the church, were all wrong?

How Does Amillennialist Hank Hanegraaff Interpret Revelation 20?

Hank Hanegraaff, in his book The Apocalypse Code, is convinced that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is symbolic and not to be taken literally.  “The figurative use of the whole number one thousand is virtually ubiquitous in Old Testament usage.  For example, God increased the number of the Israelites a thousand times (Deuteronomy 1:11); God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10); the least of Zion will become a thousand and the smallest a mighty nation (Isaiah 60:22).”  Hanegraaff continues by emphasizing “a thousand more examples (figuratively speaking) could easily be added to the list.”  What, then, does the “thousand years” mean?  Hanegraaff rejects the view that the words of Revelation 20 are a “literal prophetic chronology according to which Satan will literally be bound for one thousand years while the resurrected martyrs reign with Christ . . . .”  Alternatively, Hanegraaff argues, “We must be willing to interpret this markedly symbolic passage in light of the rest of Scripture.”  The number one thousand is symbolic of “ultimate completion.”  The “thousand years” of the martyrs’ reign indicates the vindication of the martyrs who were subjected to the terror of the Beast for “ten days.”  The “thousand years” is a qualitative contrast, not a quantitative period of time.

Amillennialist J. Marcellus Kik, in his book An Eschatology of Victory, also does not believe that the “thousand years” conveys a future, messianic, millennial kingdom.  He adds another dimension to Hanegraaff’s view.  “The term thousand years in Revelation twenty is a figurative expression used to describe the period of the messianic Kingdom upon earth.  It is that period from the first Advent of Christ until his Second Coming.”  In other words, we are all in the “millennium” today, for it spans the time between the two appearances of Christ on earth.  Kim Riddlebarger, in A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, concurs: “Amillenarians generally agree with this assessment, seeing the thousand years as a symbolic number, spanning the entire ‘church age.’”  He adds that there are good reasons for interpreting the number one thousand symbolically.  He notes, “Numbers are always used symbolically throughout the book [of Revelation].” Riddlebarger agrees with Hanegraaff’s conclusion that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 “symbolizes an ideal period time, a time of completion.”  He also contends that other words in Revelation 20, such as chain, abyss, serpent, and beast are symbolic, so it is reasonable to conclude that the number one thousand is also symbolic.

In the early centuries of the church, the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine (354-430), likewise interpreted the “thousand years” symbolically.  Augustine was a premillennialist earlier in his life, but came to regard the “thousand years” allegorically.  In The City of God he writes, “The thousand years may be understood in two ways, . . . either because these things happen in the sixth thousand of years or sixth millennium (the latter part of which is now passing), as if during the sixth day, which is to be followed by a Sabbath which has no evening, . . . or he used the thousand years as an equivalent for the whole duration of this world, employing the number of perfection to mark the fullness of time.”  It is interesting to note the reasoning Augustine employs to demonstrate that the number one thousand is the number of perfection.  “For a thousand is the cube of ten.  For ten times ten makes a hundred, that is, the square on a plane superficies.  But to give this superficies height, and make it a cube, the hundred is again multiplied by ten, which gives a thousand.” Augustine then gives an example in Scripture of the number one hundred indicating perfection or completeness, and thus concludes that if ever “one hundred” is interpreted as totality or completion, then how much more complete and perfect is one thousand.  Regardless of which of his two interpretations one may choose, Augustine came to see the millennium as the present age within which he lived.  The end of the “thousand years” will be the end of the world when Christ returns.  Christ will only return after the perfect amount of time has elapsed.

Hanegraaff, Riddlebarger, and Kik are all heirs of the amillennialism that Augustine propounded.  Augustine’s view of the “thousand years” in Revelation has been the dominant view of the church ever since the early fifth century and continues to be widely held even today.  However, many contemporary evangelicals are premillennialists and can claim their interpretational heritage to a time before Augustine, a claim that is explored in the next blog post.

What Are the Three Different Views on the Millennium in Revelation 20?

The interpretation of the thousand years (Millennium) described in Revelation 20 has caused much debate in the church. Biblical scholar George Elton Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, walks us through the three most popular views on the Millennium.

Postmillennialism means that the return of Christ would not occur until the Kingdom of God had been established by the church in human history. In this view, chapter 19 does not describe the coming of Christ but is a very symbolic way of describing the triumph of Christian principles in human affairs and the triumph of Christ through his church. After this ‘golden age,’ Christ will return to raise the dead, judge the world, and inaugurate the new eternal order.

Amillennialism is the term used to describe the view of those who do not look for a millennial reign of Christ either before or after his second coming. This way of interpreting Rev. 20 involves the principle of recapitulation, viz., that the structure of Revelation does not relate consecutive events but frequently covers the same ground from different perspectives.

Interpreters of this viewpoint often identify the binding of Satan and his incarceration in the abyss with the victory over Satan accomplished by our Lord in his earthly ministry. It is clear that the gospels do represent Jesus as having bound Satan (Matt. 12:29) and toppled him from his place of power (Luke 10:18); and this victory over Satan is reflected in the Revelation (see note on 12:9); it is an open question as to whether the binding of Satan in Rev. 20 is the same as that in Matt. 12 or is an eschatological event.

Amillennialists usually understand the ‘first resurrection’ in one of two different ways. Some see here the resurrection unto eternal life, which is an altogether spiritual reality that occurs for each believer when he becomes a Christian (John 5:25; Eph. 2:5–6). The reign of Christ with his saints is either the reign of Christ manifested in history through his church, or the spiritual reign of believers with Christ ‘in the heavenly places’ (Eph. 2:6). The thousand-year period is no literal piece of history; it is a symbolic number coextensive with the history of the church on earth between the resurrection of Christ and his return.

A different amillennial interpretation understands the resurrection and reign of the saints with Christ to represent the destiny of the martyrs. Though they were slain, the martyrs did not really die. In fact, they lived and reigned with Christ in heaven. The ‘millennium’ is the church age when martyred saints reign with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection.

Premillennialism is the view that Rev. 20 is altogether eschatological. The coming of Christ will be followed by a binding of Satan and the resurrection of the saints who will join him in a temporal kingdom when he reigns over the earth. This millennial kingdom will end with a final rebellion and the last judgment.

A variant form of premillennialism is Dispensationalism, which sees the millennial kingdom primarily in terms of God’s theocratic promises to Israel. The entire book of Revelation is interpreted in terms of these dispensational presuppositions and is concerned with the fate of restored Israel in the last days and not with the church. In many circles the only form of premillennialism known is Dispensationalism.

Commentary on Revelation 20 (The Millennium)

Now that the beast and the false prophet have been defeated, John sees another vision which starts in chapter 20. John sees an angel bind up Satan with chains and seal him in a pit. For one thousand years (the Millennium), Satan will not be able to deceive humankind any longer. Ominously, though, Satan will be released at the end of the Millennium one last time. Bible scholars differ over whether the one thousand years should be taken literally, but it seems clear that regardless of the actual length of time, the one thousand years describes a fixed amount of time determined by God.

John then describes an earthly kingdom which will be ruled by Christ and his saints. In particular, those saints who were martyred by the beast because of their allegiance to Christ will reign with him during the Millennium. How will Christ’s deceased saints rule with him? They are resurrected! God will give all believers throughout human history resurrected bodies to live, rule, and serve as priests with Christ in the Millennium. Those who are resurrected will never die again; they will live forever with Christ.

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, notes that verses 4-6 in chapter 20 emphasize the vindication of the saints:

“The second part (20:4–6) stresses another major theme of the book, the vindication of the saints. In Matt. 19:28 Jesus promised the disciples they would sit on ‘twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes.’ In 1 Cor. 6:2 Paul says the saints ‘will judge the world.’ Then in Rev. 2:26 the saints will have ‘authority over the nations,’ and in 3:21 they ‘will sit with [Christ] on his throne.’ This prepares for 6:9–11, where the martyred saints are promised that at the proper time they would be vindicated. That vindication took place in stages, from the storm theophany of 6:12–17 to the outpouring of wrath in 8:3–5 to the destruction of Babylon the Great in chapters 17–19. But it is finalized in 20:4–6, where the saints sit on thrones and judge the nations for the thousand-year period.

Also populating the earth during the Millennium are those who were aligned with the beast before his demise and their descendants. They will live in their natural bodies under the rule of Christ and his resurrected saints during the Millennium. Remember that only the Antichrist’s armies were killed in the battle of Armageddon.

After the Millennium ends, Satan will be released from prison one last time, and he will deceive the people of the earth (not the resurrected saints). A leader called Gog, from a land called Magog, will gather a massive army and march on the city of Jerusalem, the city where Jesus lives and rules. Before they can enter the city, God rains down fire on them, and they are all killed. God then throws Satan into the lake of fire with the beast and false prophet where they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, notes the parallels between Ezekiel 36-39 and argues that Revelation 20 is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Gog and Magog are biblical names for the nations who are rebellious against God and hostile to his people. In Ezek. 38:1, Gog is the prince of the land of Magog and comes from the north in the latter days to do battle with God’s people. In Revelation, both words represent the hostile nations.

While the New Testament has little to say about a temporal messianic kingdom, Ezekiel’s prophecy has the same basic structure as Rev. 20. Chapters 36–37 picture the salvation of Israel, restored to their land and blessed with the messianic salvation (see 36:24–29). The goal of the prophetic expectation, ‘you shall be my people, and I will be your God’ (Ezek. 36:28) is now realized. David, God’s servant, will rule over his people, and God will dwell in their midst (37:25, 28). However, the blessing of the messianic kingdom is not the end. The kingdom is disturbed by an eschatological war led by Gog from Magog (chapters 38–39); and only after the divine victory do we have a picture of the eternal new order, which in Ezekiel is described in terms of a rebuilt temple in the new Jerusalem (chapters 40–48). This structure of a temporal messianic kingdom followed by the eternal kingdom in the new age is the same as that in Revelation.

Why will there be a temporal, earthly kingdom under Christ’s rule? Why allow Satan to deceive the world again? Ladd answers:

In the present instance, even after Christ himself has reigned over men during the millennium, when the deceiver is set free from his prison, he finds the hearts of men still responsive to his seductions. This makes it plain that the ultimate root of sin is not poverty or inadequate social conditions or an unfortunate environment; it is the rebelliousness of the human heart. The millennium and the subsequent rebellion of men will prove that men cannot blame their sinfulness on their environment or unfortunate circumstances; in the final judgment, the decrees of God will be shown to be just and righteous.

Osborne adds:

For a thousand years, those among the nations who worshiped the beast will be under Jesus’ sovereign control and ruled by the saints. They will not experience Satan or be deceived in any way by him. All they will experience is the benign rule of Jesus himself. Yet after fourteen lifetimes of enforced good (according to the text, i.e., the story form), as soon as Satan is released, they allow themselves to be ‘deceived’ all over again and follow him. The purpose is to prove the power of total depravity and demonstrate once and for all the necessity of eternal punishment. The millennium is the judicial evidence that will convict the earth-dwellers and prove that their eternal sin demands eternal punishment. In other words, 20:3c and 20:7–10 are the divine ‘must’ of a just God.

John has told us the fate of the beast, the false prophet, and Satan himself. But what will happen to the people who, throughout human history, rejected God while they were alive, but are now deceased?

John’s vision moves to a great white throne upon which God sits (compare the following verses to Daniel 7: 9, 10, 22). The entire physical universe ceases to exist. All the unrighteous dead are resurrected and join the already resurrected believers. Both the saints and the wicked stand before God where He reviews the books which contain their deeds.

John then mentions another book, the book of life. This book lists all the saved people of God. The only way for a person to be saved is through the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Every person whose name is not found in the book of life is sent to the lake of fire. Death itself is also thrown into the lake of fire, meaning that no saved person will ever die again.

Mark Wilson, in Hebrews to Revelation: Volume Four (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), connects these verses to the book of Daniel:

Daniel prophesied that ‘everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered’ (Dan. 12:1). The deliverance promised to the righteous dead is everlasting life (12:2). The victors in Sardis are promised that their names would not be erased from the book of life (Rev. 3:5). The primary act disqualifying the earth dwellers from inclusion in the book of life is worshiping the beast rather than the Lamb (cf. 13:8; 17:8). The consequence of omission from the book of life is being thrown into the lake of fire. An angel has earlier warned those who worship the beast that eternal torment with burning sulfur would be their fate (14:10–11). That moment has finally arrived. . . .

The dead, who are excluded from the first resurrection, are the multitudes spoken of by Daniel who will awaken to shame and eternal contempt (Dan. 12:2). Upon hearing the voice of the Son of Man, those practicing evil will come out of their graves to be condemned to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28–29). The second death is the punishment Jesus warned about: ‘Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28). Death and Hades are the last to be thrown into the lake of fire. He who holds the keys of death and Hades has finally turned the lock (cf. Rev. 1:18). This picture accords with Paul’s statement, ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 2

Continuing from part 1,

Idealist. This popular approach argues that the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths (so Hendriksen, Hoekema, P. Hughes). As such it relates primarily to the church between the advents, that is, between Christ’s first and second comings. Thus it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history. The seals, trumpets, and bowls depict God’s judgments on sinners at all times, and the beast refers to all the anti-Christian empires and rulers in history. Thus the book describes the victory of Christ and his people down through history. The millennium in this approach is not a future event but the final cycle of the book (so Hendriksen) describing the church age. There are certain strengths in this view: the centrality of theology for the book, the relevance for the church at all times, the symbolic nature of the book. But it has certain weaknesses as well: the absence of historical connections, the failure to see the future nature of many of the prophecies or to connect them in any way with history (as it seems the text does in several instances).

Futurist. This was the method employed by some of the earliest fathers (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus), but with the triumph of the allegorical method (taking a spiritual approach to the book) after Origen and of the amillennial view after Augustine and Ticonius, the futurist method (and chiliasm) was not seen again for over a thousand years. The first to develop once more a literal view of the book was Franciscus Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit who wrote in the late sixteenth century to counter the Reformation antipapal interpretation. While he was not truly a futurist, he turned the attention back to the early fathers, and after him that view returned to prominence and stands alongside the others as equally viable.

Futurism believes that chapters 4–22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history and usher in the eschaton. There are two forms of this approach, dispensationalism and what has been called ‘classical premillennialism.’ Dispensationalists believe that God has brought about his plan of salvation in a series of dispensations or stages centering on his election of Israel to be his covenant people. Therefore, the church age is a parenthesis in this plan, as God turned to the Gentiles until the Jewish people find national revival (Rom. 11:25–32). At the end of that period, the church will be raptured, inaugurating a seven-year tribulation period in the middle of which the Antichrist will make himself known (Rev. 13) and instigate the ‘great tribulation’ or great persecution of the 144,000 and others among Israel who have become Christians. At the end of that period will come the parousia as Christ returns in judgment, followed by a literal millennium (20:1–10), great white throne judgment (20:11–15), and the beginning of eternity in heavenly bliss (21:1–22:5). Classical premillennialism is similar but does not hold to dispensations. Thus there is only one return of Christ, after the tribulation period (Matt. 24:29–31; cf. Rev. 19:11–21), and it is the whole church, not just the nation of Israel, that passes through the tribulation period. Also, dispensationalists view themselves as literalists on the symbols, while the second school would take many of them to be symbolic (see above). There are some weaknesses of this school as well: it can develop a perspective that would remove its applicability to first-century Christians (see above on the ‘prophecy’ movement), and it can often deteriorate to mere speculation cut off from first-century backgrounds. If all we have are events without symbolic/theological significance, much of the power of the book can be lost.

How does Osborne synthesize these views in his commentary on Revelation?

The solution is to allow the preterist, idealist, and futurist methods to interact in such a way that the strengths are maximized and the weaknesses minimized. Beale, for instance, calls his method ‘a redemptive-historical form of modified idealism’ (1999: 48). He takes the symbols in an inaugurated sense as describing the church age from the present to the future. For instance, the beast of 13:1–8 refers both to the ‘many antichrists’ throughout church history and to the final Antichrist at the end of history (1999: 680–81). The approach of this commentary is similar, but the futurist rather than the idealist position is primary. My study of ancient apocalyptic and of the Book of Revelation has led me to believe that John’s visions (esp. chaps. 4–22) were primarily intended to describe the events that will end world history.

The saints in these chapters are believers alive in that final period, and the beast is the Antichrist who will lead the ‘earth-dwellers’/unbelievers in a final pogrom against all the people of God. The seals, trumpets, and bowls symbolize a final series of judgments by which God will turn the evil deeds of the nations back upon their heads (the Roman legal principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution) to prove his sovereignty once and for all and to give them a final chance to repent (9:20–21; 11:13; 14:6–7; 16:9, 11).

But the preterist school is also correct, because the visions use the events of the future to address John and his readers in the present. Most of the imagery used to describe the beast and Babylon the Great comes from actual first-century parallels. The beast is a final Nerolike figure, and Babylon is the final unholy Roman Empire. One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’ John’s readers were being asked to identify with the people at the end of history and gain perspective for their present suffering through the future trials of God’s people. This leads us to the idealist position, also intended in the text, for these final events are also timeless symbols meant to challenge the church in every era. The three-and-a-half-year great tribulation provides models for the similar tribulations of the saints down through history. Therefore, this commentary is quite similar to Beale’s except for the centrality of the futurist approach (also similar to Ladd, Beasley-Murray, Michaels, and Mounce).

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 1

Because of the literary genre and dense symbolism in the Book of Revelation, there has been much disagreement in the church about how to interpret it. The events described in chapters 4-19 especially invite a diversity of opinions. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, describes the situation:

There are several major categories of interpretation of this book: (1) Revelation predicts in detail the course of human history till the Second Coming, (2) Revelation reflects the general principles of history, (3) Revelation addresses only what was happening in John’s day, (4) Revelation addresses only the end time, and (5) combinations of the above approaches (e.g., John addresses the principles of history in view of the ever-impending end time until it arrives, and originally articulated these principles to speak to the situation of his late-first-century readers).

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, gives a detailed accounting of the historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation which correspond to Keener’s categories above.

Historicist. This approach began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He claimed that a vision had told him the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events of Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. The Franciscans followed Joachim and like him interpreted the book as relating to pagan Rome and the papacy (due to corruption in the church). Later the Reformers (e.g., Luther and Calvin) also favored this method, with the pope as the Antichrist (see Beckwith 1919: 327–29; Johnson 1981: 409). Classical dispensational thinking took this approach with regard to the letters to the seven churches, believing that the letters prophesied the seven periods of the church age. Also, the so-called prophecy movement, those preachers who see every detail in OT as well as NT apocalyptic symbolism as fulfilled in current events (the ‘newspaper approach’ to prophecy), would be aligned with this school. Proponents of this method have tended to take Rev. 2–19, including the seals, trumpets, and bowls as well as the interludes, as prophetic of salvation history, that is, the development of church history within world history. Thus the beast/Antichrist has been variously identified with the pope, Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler. Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999: 46), few scholars today take this approach.

Preterist. This approach argues that the details of the book relate to the present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. Thus the symbols refer to events in the first-century world as experienced by the original readers, and John is telling them how God would deliver them from their oppressors. There are three basic approaches to the book from within this school of thought. The two most popular relate the book to the situation of the church in the Roman Empire. The first (taken by critical scholars like R. H. Charles, Sweet, and Roloff) views the book as written about Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman Empire. Due to the development of the imperial cult, pressure to conform and the resultant persecution have become serious threats to the church. The beast thus would be the Roman Empire or the Roman emperor, and the seals, trumpets, and bowls are contemporary judgments God is pouring (or soon will pour) upon Rome itself. Thus the book describes the conflict between church and state, between faithfulness to God and compromise with the pagan world.

The second is taken by many modern critics (Yarbro Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr) who argue that there was little persecution and a perceived crisis rather than a real one. The church is still called out from the ‘world’ to follow God, but it is an internal spiritual crisis rather than external persecution. Osiek (1996: 343–44) says the eschatology of the book is not a timetable for the future but a reinterpretation of the present. It provides a spatial interaction between the earthly and the heavenly so as to give new meaning to the present situation. In this case the symbols provide alternative worlds that the readers have to choose between, the transcendent realm of God and the church or the alternative secular world of Rome. The problem of the book then is compromise, as seen in the Nicolaitan cult, and the solution is true worship of Christ (see esp. Krodel).

A third option is to take the book as written before a.d. 70 and prophesying the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment upon apostate Israel for rejecting the Messiah and persecuting the church (so Gentry, Chilton). The beast is Rome, the kings from the east are the Roman generals who brought the Roman army from the eastern boundary of the empire to destroy Jerusalem, and Armageddon is the siege of Jerusalem itself. For Kraybill (1999: 32–35) the white horse of 6:1–2 is Rome and the red horse of 6:3–4 is the Jewish War of a.d. 66–70.

This third approach is least viable, not only because it necessitates an early date of writing but because it limits the universal language of the book (all ‘peoples, languages, tribes, and nations’) to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the first two are also problematic because they would involve an error of prophecy (which many critical scholars state openly) since final judgment and the end of the world did not come with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

To be continued in part 2.

Must New Testament Believers Obey the Dietary Laws of Leviticus 11?

A minority of New Testament (NT) believers still adhere to the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 (e.g., Seventh-Day Adventists). Are they correct? Should we all be abstaining from pork, shellfish, and the other foods banned in Leviticus 11?

No. The NT clearly teaches that the distinction between clean and unclean meat is gone. Several passages teach this concept.

First is Acts 10:10-16 where Peter receives a vision from God:

And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance  and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’  But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’  And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’  This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Second is Romans 14:14 where Paul states, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

Third is 1 Timothy 4:1-5 where Paul writes,

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,  who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,  for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Fourth, and most importantly, Jesus gives his views on clean and unclean foods in Mark 7:14-23:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand:  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’  And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.  And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him,  since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

The bottom line is that Jesus and his apostles clearly proclaimed the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 to be null and void. Those laws were in force for national Israel, but upon the arrival of Jesus, they were abrogated for new covenant believers.

Do the Three Accounts of Paul’s Conversion in Acts Contradict Each Other?

The conversion of Saul/Paul is so important to the author of the Book of Acts that he presents the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26). Each version is different, and this fact has led some critics to say that the accounts are contradictory. But is that necessarily the case?

First, we must note that there are several common elements in the three versions:

  • Saul is on his way to Damascus to gather up Christians.
  • He sees an intense light.
  • The Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him.
  • Saul asks who the speaker is.
  • Jesus reveals that it is he.

What are the differences? Darrel Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.

Bock then argues that each of these differences can be reconciled. About the different experiences of the men traveling with Saul,

The elements at play here can be reconciled (Witherington 1998, 312– 13), as for instance in the following way: The men hear a sound, but it is not intelligible to them; they also see a light but not Jesus himself. Only Saul sees someone in the light and is able to discern a speaking voice in the sound. Saul’s companions experience something less than the full event, which means that the appearance is neither an entirely private vision nor a fully disclosed public event. It is a public event whose details are for one man alone, Saul of Tarsus.

John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary, agrees with Bock:

Paul’s traveling companions served as authenticators that what happened to Paul was an objective event, not merely a rumbling of his inner psyche. They heard a sound, but they did not see the vision of Jesus. Acts 22:9 says that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke with Paul. The two accounts are not contradictory but underline the same event. Paul’s companions heard a sound and saw a light. They could verify that an objective heavenly manifestation took place. They did not participate in the heavenly communication, however, neither seeing the vision of Jesus nor hearing the words spoken to Paul. The revelation was solely to Paul.

Regarding Ananias being left out of Acts 26, Bock writes, “This may be in part because the book has already mentioned him in detail twice, in Acts 9 and 22. Luke chooses not to be redundant on this detail, and so he provides a telescoped account.”

Regarding Saul not mentioning his call to the Gentiles in Acts 9, “Ananias notes in 9:15 that Saul would be called to a Gentile mission, so we probably have another example of telescoping. Another possibility is that Luke chose not to note this detail in his third-person narrative because the Gentile mission had not yet taken place, but this argument is somewhat weakened by the mention of the mission to Ananias. In any case, Saul’s not mentioning his Gentile mission in Acts 9 is simply an outcome of Luke’s literary choice, the exact reason for which is not clear.”

Bock concludes:

As is common in ancient retellings, each version has some variation so that each adds something to the reader’s understanding. Witherington (1998, 303– 15) has a helpful discussion of the relationship between these three accounts. He stresses that all of them are summaries and are not intended to provide comprehensive information.

Does Acts 4:32-35 Describe an Early Christian Experiment in Community Ownership?

The book of Acts describes the early church in Jerusalem in the following way: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Does this describe an early experiment in compulsory community ownership of all property? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, argues that it is not:

Repeated attempts have been made to see this as an early Christian experiment in community ownership. Sometimes a specific pattern has been suggested, such as the common ownership practiced by the Qumran covenanters. There are many reasons to reject such suggestions. Every evidence is that the early Christian practice was wholly voluntary.

First, there was no transfer of ownership, no control of production or income, no requirement to surrender one’s property to the community. The voluntary nature of the Christian practice is evidenced by the consistent use of the iterative imperfect tense throughout vv. 34b–35. This is how they ‘used to’ do it. They ‘would sell’ their property and bring it to the apostles as needs arose.

Second is the example of Barnabas in vv. 36–37. His sale of property would hardly be a sterling example if surrender of property were obligatory.

Third, in the example of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter clarified for Ananias that his sin was in lying about his charity. The land remained his to do with as he pleased; he was under no obligation to give the proceeds to the church (5:4).

Fourth, the picture of the central fund for the widows in 6:1–6 is clearly not an apportioning of each one’s lot from a common fund but a charity fund for the needy.

Finally, there is the example of Mary in 12:12f. She still owned a home and had a maid. The Christians enjoyed the hospitality of her home. This was clearly no experiment in common ownership.

But what of the practice of laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet? The gesture was one of submission to another. At this point the Twelve were the representatives appointed by Christ as the foundation of the true people of God. The submission was not to them but to the one they represented. To lay one’s gift at their feet was to offer it to Christ. The apostles certainly did not consider this an enviable role. They were all too glad to turn the responsibility over to others (cf. 6:2).

Darrell Bock adds, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible),

This sharing of material things was not a required communalism but a voluntary, caring response to need, as the end of verse 45 shows. The verbs for ‘sell’ (epipraskon) and ‘distribute’ (diemerizon) are iterative imperfects. The implication is that this sharing was repetitive. That a community is really functioning with appropriate love and compassion is evident when material needs are being met.

Peter’s rebuke of Ananias in Acts 5:4 makes it clear that donation of material goods and money was not a requirement among early Christians, in contrast to the requirement at Qumran among the Essenes (1QS 1.11– 12; 5.1– 3; 6.2– 3; CD 9.1– 15; 1QS 9.3– 11). That the later church did not keep the communal practice confirms the voluntary nature of the practice witnessed in Acts 2. Possessing all things in common was often seen as an ethical virtue in ancient culture (Philo, Good Person 12 § 86; Hypothetica 11.10– 13; Abraham 40 § 235; Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5 § 20 [of the Essenes]). The Greeks held that friends share things in common (Plato, Republic 4.424A; 5.449C; Critias 110C– D; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1168B. 31; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 30.168). Later rabbinic Judaism argued against it (m. ’Abot 5.10; Johnson 1992, 9).

The practice of communal living in Acts 2 was not driven by eschatological views. Rather, it was motivated by the intimate presence of God as proven by the ‘many wonders and signs [that] were being performed through the apostles’ (v. 43). The fitting response was that each member of the growing community show concern for needy members (chreian, need; perhaps as Jesus taught in Luke 6: 30– 36 or from the OT and Deut 15: 4– 5; Polhill 1992, 121). Jesus’ teaching about not hoarding material provisions from God also may provide background (Luke 12: 13– 21). The same motivation appears in Acts 4:35, and failure to meet such needs in 6:3 among Hellenist widows leads to a complaint and resolution in the church (20:34 and 28:10 complete the uses of the term ‘need’ in Acts). All of this shows we are not dealing with a command here, but a heartfelt response of deep faith. As such, the passage neither authorizes that such behavior is required, but neither does it preclude it from being done in any era as an expression of meeting community needs.

Does the Chronology of the Passion Week in John Contradict the Synoptic Gospels? Part 3

 

The fifth verse to consider is John 19:31. “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.”

Again we come to the meaning of the phrase “day of Preparation.” Carson writes:

If paraskeuē (‘Preparation’) here refers to the same day as does its use in v. 14, and the reasoning in the notes on that verse are correct, then this sentence tells us that Jesus was crucified on Friday, the day before (i.e. the (‘Preparation’ of) the Sabbath. The next day, Sabbath (=Saturday), would by Jewish reckoning begin at sundown Friday evening. It was a special Sabbath, not only because it fell during the Passover Feast, but because the second paschal day, in this case falling on the Sabbath, was devoted to the very important sheaf offering (Lv. 23:11; cf. SB 2. 582).

The sixth verse to consider is John 19:36. “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’”

Many Bible scholars tie the phrase “Not one of his bones will be broken” to Old Testament references to the Passover lamb in Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12. The argument is that if Jesus is crucified on Passover, then this OT allusion makes more sense. Carson agrees that Jesus is portrayed as the Passover lamb throughout the New Testament, but that hardly means that his crucifixion had to be on Passover for the portrayal to make sense.

“Certainly these chapters in John are laced with the Passover motif—indeed, the same could be said for much of the Fourth Gospel, even if we dissent from those who argue that in John Jesus dies at the time the Passover lambs are being killed in the temple complex. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is portrayed as the Passover lamb slain for his people (1 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:19).”

Finally, the seventh verse to consider is John 19:42. “So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.”

Carson again notes that the day of Preparation should be understood as Friday, the day before the Sabbath. If that is the meaning of the phrase, then John’s Gospel exactly matches the chronology of the Synoptics.