There is a reason Voddie Baucham began his series on Revelation by calling it the book most congregants want their pastors to walk through but the book most pastors don’t want to walk through. It’s confusing. It’s even more confusing because everyone begins with different eschatological convictions, convictions many people are known for fighting about. Too often, agreement about the specifics of end-times theology is the dividing line for those who profess to be Christian even though many of those specifics are argued from inference rather than from the explicit claims of the text. Never does Scripture reveal perspicuously anything about a future 7-year tribulation, the timing of a rapture of the saints, or the timing of Christ’s millennial reign. All we can be certain of from the text is that there are tribulations, the saints will be caught up with Christ at the blast of a trumpet, and Christ does reign and establish His own millennial government. These truths cannot be denied, but the specifics about them are often disagreed upon by good theologians, zealous Christians, and sound pastors. In all the disagreements, only denying the second-coming of Christ is a legitimate matter of heresy or division. That being said, I do not break fellowship with any Christian based on his or her specific definition of the millennial kingdom, rapture, or tribulation. I do break fellowship if someone denies the second coming of Christ and the final establishment of His kingdom on the earth.
The Confusing Book we call Revelation
One cannot deny that the book of Revelation is highly symbolic. Jesus is not literally a lamb or lion or vine. Blood does not make clothes white. A city the size of the United States will not, according to John, literally come down out of heaven—the New Jerusalem represents the people of God (cf. Revelation 21:2, 12-13) and was currently coming down out of heaven in the First Century AD (cf. Revelation 3: 12; 21:10).
Why is Revelation so cryptic? I interpret Scripture literally; A literal interpretation of Scripture is also known as a grammatical-historical approach to interpretation. I do not take an allegorical, mystical, or progressive approach to biblical interpretation. Literal interpretation demands consideration of the historical and grammatical context of each book and forces us to consider the literal intentions of the biblical authors. John had just been exiled to Patmos under either Domition or Nero. There was formal state persecution against Christians and the government would likely not allow an epistle to be mailed from Patmos. So, John wrote a story in the apocalyptic genre—a popular genre among Jews in the First Century AD. John’s book has a literal meaning, but only those who understood the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament prophets would be able to discern the literal meaning. John disguised his indictment against the Roman regime using the language of the Old Testament prophets in such a way that the Roman mail service would not recognize the work as anti-imperial cult. Such a realization helps us to understand why Revelation is so difficult to understand.
Why Such Disagreement?
There is such disagreement with regard to end-times and the book of Revelation because people begin in different eschatological positions (though not always disparate). We all read Scripture in light of our theological positions. We also interpret world events in light of our theological convictions. We cannot avoid such a tendency. What we believe about God and His work informs what we believe about everything else. What we believe about God is the most important set of beliefs we form. May we all be humble and sincere as we think about the Scriptures. A quick read through any systematic theology (I recommend Wayne Grudem’s) reveals a great diversity in end-times thought. No easy conclusion can be reached by anyone who sincerely approaches the subject because every position is argued from inference, even the position I currently and humbly hold to. In Understanding Prophecy by Alan Bandy and Benjamin Merkle, we can easily see how two reformed men who approach Scripture literally (grammatically and historically) can arrive at two different conclusions and still represent Scripture well. In their book, Bandy takes a historic-premillennial position and Merkle takes an amillennial position. Both men agree that the Bible should be interpreted literally. Even historic premillennials general hesitate when it comes to affirming definitely a future 7-year great tribulation or pretribulation rapture (which is a position taken by dispensational or futurist premillennials; a very new position to take in theological history; Refer to Grudem’s Systematic Theology). There is a reason we should never major on specific end-times details and simply preach and teach the Bible literally. The arguments we make from inference pale in comparison to God’s revealed word. That is why, when I teach, we simply walk through Scripture and consider the evidence. I do not tell people what end-times view to hold. I am not angry at those who disagree with the position I currently and humbly hold to. We are to be about the revelation of God, not telling others to agree with our own conclusions or the conclusions of our favorite theologians. Ultimately, I desire my congregation think through the issues for themselves. If you are one of those who are willing to break fellowship based on anything argued from inference, then you are one of the divisive wolves in the church; Understand, you have idolatrized a theological position and have failed to love your brothers and sisters in Christ. You have sprayed mud all over the wedding gown of Christ’s beloved bride. In his Revelation, John even says that local churches who do such a thing will have their lampstands removed from them (cf. Revelation 2:1-7).
My Encouragement for You
John begins the book of Revelation by encouraging his readers in the First Century AD and us, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3). Consideration of the eschaton is to bring joy and blessing, awe-inspiration at the wonder of the work Christ is doing in and through His church. The book of Revelation is meant to unite, bless, and empower the body of Christ for world-mission. The time of Christ’s work and kingdom was near in the First Century. It is near today. May we heed the words of the Revelation. Judgment awaits those who are not in Christ. Blessing is showered over those who are in Christ. The further we get from Christ as churches and nations, the more we will experience tribulation in this world. The more closely we follow Christ as churches and nations, the more we will experience the blessings of God even in the midst of this turbulent world.
Amen and amen.