Plain talk about the Revelation

One of the great spiritual crises of my early faith concerned the book of the Revelation, the last book of the Bible. I puzzled over the various interpretations of the text: premillennialism (that Christ will return before the millennial kingdom [cf. Rev. 20]), postmillennialism (that Christ will return after the millennial kingdom), and amillennalism (that the millennial kingdom is meant to be understood figuratively). I could not tell which was the “biblical” position, and it was stressful to think about the End Times. If asked whether I was a premillennialist, postmillennialist or an amillennialist, I had no reply. I did not know.

However, reading the prophecy was not stressful. Despite my apprehensions, every time I poured over the text, I felt a peace, a sweetness. I marveled as I turned through the pages of John’s prophecy, through those magnificent things, through the depths. Intrinsically, it made sense.

The disparity between how I felt when the Revelation was being discussed and how I felt when I read it was instructive. I learned that the problem lay not in the text, but in the interpretations, and not so much in the interpretations as in the attitudes about the interpretations. I was persuaded that there one had to choose. I now believe that that is a false supposition, and that the real meaning of the Revelation gets lost in the debate over interpretations.

What few Christians know is that Revelation has been variously interpreted through the ages. The Pilgrims came to America believing that the kingdom of God was being established in their day, and that Christ would soon return — to the New World. And so they endured all sorts of hardships. Evangelicals of the 19th century believed they were ushering in the Kingdom through good works. But after the Civil War — and the bloodshed — they began to think that perhaps Armageddon would happen first, then the coming of Christ, and then the Kingdom. Evangelicals in America have not always believed one thing about the End Times.

In the earliest centuries of the Christian faith, believers held contrary views on the subject. Some held that the text was to be undertood figuratively; others, that it was to be understood literally. Writes Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian apologist, “I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place [literally], as you assuredly are aware, but on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise” (Dialog with Typhro, LXXX). In the generation following the distribution of the Revelation, Christians did not believe one thing about it. And, still, they maintained unity — it was not an issue that divided. It did not constitute an essential of the faith, but a non-essential. There was something greater at stake.

What I lacked in my initial study of Revelation was perspective. I had allowed myself to be pressured by the various camps — premillennial, postmillennial, amillennial — never realizing it didn’t matter what position I took. What I believed, or thought I believed, about the Revelation had no bearing on when God executed his plan. Certainly, all of us have thought at some time that, in the end, The End will simply show itself. Then, we will know. Today, we understand but partially (cf. 1 Cor. 13:9); tomorrow, we will know plainly. To step beyond what we can know for certain is to transgress the prerogatives of the Creator.

There is more to consider.

The earliest church communities — those of Acts and those mentioned in the apostles’ letters — had no knowledge of the millennial kingdom. None of their theology reflects an understanding of the End Times, as defined by the book of the Revelation. John did not compose that text until around 90 A.D., decades after the martyrdoms of most of the apostles, including Peter and Paul who died in Rome in 64 A.D. Not that they had no knowledge of the End Times (Paul writes about it in 1 Thess. and Peter in 2 Peter), but they did not see the same picture John saw. And it would be years before the church beyond Asia Minor, where Revelation was composed, would know of the prophecy. Later still, until it would be accepted into the canon of scripture.

Reading Revelation back into the earlier writings is a fraught with peril. I do not say that the gospels, letters and the Revelation are inharmonious, but we must acknowledge our limitations. For example, John does not record the Rapture. In all the 22 chapters of Revelation, never is the Rapture mentioned. We may assume that it happens somewhere, but where one places the Rapture in Revelation is a matter of interpretation. We cannot escape this reality until the Lord shows us otherwise. So, whether one is a premillennialist, postmillennialist or amillennialist matters little: Revelation does not give us this privilege.

The problem for ordinary Christians is that one is told that one has to believe one way or the other. I disagree. I do not believe faith entails taking positions on every matter of theology. (In truth, what matters most is knowing Christ and Christ crucified. All else follows in its time.) One might study; one might draw conclusions; but, one needn’t take a position for the sake of having a position. It is enough to believe that Jesus will come again, and that there will be judgment. Where and when, well, “no one knows.” We should not move beyond what has been revealed.

That God should simultaneously disclose and conceal the End Times is a great mystery. On the one hand, we are not to be caught unawares, but on the other hand, no one knows the day or hour, not even the Son, only the Father (cf. Luke 21:34 & Matt. 24:36). The key is understanding God’s purpose in revealing these truths; principally it is that we are to be prepared. Charts and graphs are meaningful only if our lives conform to the living image of God; otherwise, it is all noise.

After 21 years of Christian faith, I’ve concluded this: one needn’t take a position. One needn’t be a premillennialist, a postmillennialist or an amillennialist. Rather, let the Spirit of God to speak through the text. That is sweetness; that is peace.

Originally published at Agabus.com.

© 2009, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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