A Revelation Roundtable

Michael S. Horton
Kim Riddlebarger
Tuesday, November 1st 2011
Nov/Dec 2011

Michael S. Horton joined fellow White Horse Inn co-host Kim Riddlebarger, Steve M. Baugh, and Dennis E. Johnson in a roundtable discussion on the book of Revelation. Dr. Kim Riddlebarger is pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim and the author of A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, 2003) and Man of Sin: Uncovering the Truth about the Antichrist (Baker, 2006). Steve Baugh is professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California, and Dennis Johnson, professor of practical theology also at Westminster, is the author of Triumph of the Lamb (P&R, 2001).

MSH: What is the book of Revelation about? Is it really about the end times, or is it about something else?

SMB: This is the one book in the Bible that says explicitly, "Blessed is the one who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy." It offers a blessing for the reading and understanding of the book. God offers a blessing right upfront for reading, understanding, and heeding the message of it. So this is our book. What's grievous is that anything could take it away from us. Regarding what it's about, it says right at the beginning: a disclosure of Jesus Christ. So the short answer is that it's about the Lord.

MSH: Which is why it's called the "revelation," the "apocalypse of Jesus Christ."

DEJ: It's an unveiling. In fact, that verse that Steve quoted (1:3) that says, "Blessed is the one who reads and those who hear," presupposes the first- century church's experience of the book, which would be that there would be one copy, and everyone else would experience it by hearing it read aloud. It sort of baffles the imagination now because we're used to cross references and Bible software. Jesus promises a blessing to people who hear it read and take to heart its message; it delivers its message that clearly. And it's a message that in one sense is about the end times, because the New Testament consistently says the last days began with the first coming of Christ, with his incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit. It's about that conflict of the ages, especially as it's brought to the phase inaugurated with Jesus' ascension, his rule, and his combat over Satan the dragon, leading right through our time to however long it is until he returns.

MSH: Many people on one side view the book of Revelation as talking about future things. That's what Kim and I grew up with; Revelation is a sort of hand- book of clues to the mystery of what's going to happen down the road of the future. On the other hand, you have what's called "preterism," a new position that says it is concerned with what are now to us past fulfilled prophecies. Are both of those approaches reductionistic?

KR: I think that's exactly the case. When you grow up in dispensationalism, as I did, you're told that in Revelation 4:1 the rapture occurs with the "come up here" language. So everything from Revelation 4:1 on is off in the future. If you have the right pastor, you will learn that the seven letters to the churches are really a map to the church age, so you'll find out that you really want to make sure you're in the church in Philadelphia, not the church of Laodicea, the lukewarm church. Everything is pushed off into the future or moralized.

The problem with preterism is that it removes eschatology from the book of Revelation, and for that matter from the New Testament, by saying that this is written to the first-century church and says really nothing about the future. Once Nero rises and the beast arises to persecute the church, then most everything in the book of Revelation is fulfilled. And you're right, I think those are both very reductionistic and rob the church of the power of this great book.

MSH: Let's define "dispensationalism" for those who might not be familiar with the term.

KR: Historically, John Nelson Darby, who is considered the father of the Plymouth Brethren movement, said that the Bible is basically a book of seven basic dispensations and that each one of these is a particular period of redemptive history where God relates to his people in a particular way. So the first dispensation, the age of innocence, is Adam before the Fall, and after the Fall he relates to God in a different way, and you have the age of conscience and human government. So you end up with the Bible being seven separate epochs. The difficulty is how those relate to one another. Our dispensational friends will say, "No, there's one plan of salvation," but it logically it makes it very tough when you've got seven separate economies.

MSH: So they emphasize discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, and also between Israel and the church. How does that affect their reading of the book of Revelation?

SMB: It really is in combination with other issues that they have alongside of dispensationalism. One of them is called the "futurist approach" to Revelation. There are different approaches; you've sort of outlined some of that before. They believe that because prominent dispensationalists have taught that Revelation from chapter 4 on is really just a revelation about things that will occur at a future date from our perspective, they start at Revelation 4-22; then it's a chronological unfolding of a brief period, with a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, to be followed by a new heavens and a new earth. But they combine it with the idea of Revelation being a chronological presentation of a future era, yet it's all future, because from Revelation 4:1 on, it appears to be things that are future from John's day, so they put it off to our future as well.

MSH: How should we read these chapters, if not in a chronological order as code for what's going to happen around the corner in the future?

DEJ: The broad structure of the book of Revelation does lead us from the present situation of the seven first-century churches in Asia Minor and the tests and trials they were under. These were real churches, not ages of the church. I'm amused when dispensationalist friends say that we need to take things literally where possible, and yet some of the most literal things in the book of Revelation are descriptive of seven churches in seven western Asia Minor cities. You can trace the route that the carrier of the book of Revelation would take from Ephesus, north to the various churches, looping around to the south in the interior and back to Laodicea. And the descriptions of the churches often fit the conditions of the cities where they are located.

So the big picture is, yes, from the present to the consummation, it is a movement across history to the second coming of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth. Within that, though, the structure of the book of Revelation often is a series of cycles or recapitulations. I like to compare it to seeing a football game on TV, and then seeing three video replays of every touchdown: one with focus on the split end, then on the quarterback, and then from the end zone or something. Similarly, Revelation is looking at the same span of the struggle the church is engaged in but from different perspectives with a little bit of different focus. It's therefore seriously problematic to simply read things in the succession of the visions as though they reflect the chronological order of the history.

MSH: You can't read Revelation in one hand and your newspaper in the other, and think that you're simply getting a spiritual interpretation of the events that are unfolding on CNN.

KR: The sad thing is that I think people have been taught to read the book of Revelation in that way. Prophecy preachers on TV are wonderfully skillful at finding current events in the book of Revelation, but John is not addressing events in our day and age. Dr. Johnson, I love your camera angle analogy. I think that really helps people understand why the same thing is told over and over again.

SMB: And this is not new, either. This is how you read portions of 1 Kings where you also have recapitulation. You've got it in Ezekiel, clearly, with the Gog and Magog passage: chapter 39 is recapitulating 38. You have Genesis 1 and 2. And those are prose. Those are not poetry or vision. We have these places where you're looking at different angles in other places in the Bible. So we're not imposing this foreign grid on Revelation, but reading it as the Bible presents itself.

MSH: If you have that in historical narrative, it wouldn't be surprising at all that you would have it in poetry or apocalyptic literature.

DEJ: The other problem, of course, with the newspaper in one hand and Revelation in the other is that those first-century churches did not have our newspaper, yet this book is intended to comfort, fortify, and warn them. They did have something else that they were supposed to read in the other hand, and that was the Old Testament Scriptures. That is accessible to us, obviously, and was accessible to them, and it is really the window on the book of Revelation. God was laying out the whole vocabulary of the imagery in the Old Testament that he would then finally use in that climactic prophetic book of Revelation.

MSH: So the purpose of the book of Revelation was and remains to comfort the suffering people of God?

DEJ: And to warn the compromised people of God, because there were great temptations. Certainly, a lot of those churches faced intense persecution. There were already martyrdoms; Antipas, the faithful witness, was one of them. There were other churches that needed the warning against compromise or accommodation to the culture. Its focus therefore is really for churches under a whole host of spiritual attacks’some of them physical, some of them subtle.

SMB: It's the message of Christ to his church in this age, with all the different temptations.

MSH: The key is to understand that we are in these last days; that yes, it is about the end times, if you recognize that the end times started with the ascension of Christ.

DEJ: Exactly.

SMB: Little children, this is the last hour. You've heard that an antichrist is coming; even now, many antichrists have appeared. Therefore, it is the last hour. We should be awake, we should be ready, we should be seeing Christ on the throne in heaven, ascended, as Revelation beautifully pictures in chapters 5 and 12. We live in the time when Revelation is relevant, because we believe it's relevant for today.

MSH: Could you say that another distinctive of the classic amillennial approach to the book of Revelation, in contrast to its rivals, is that it's Christ centered? That the book of Revelation is about Christ, where the treatment people often get is that it's about the common market countries, or it's about Israel, or about this event or that event? Events that don't necessarily have to have any reference to Christ. Yet this book is so pregnant with consistently Christ-centered themes.

KR: It's a very preachable book. As a minister of a local congregation, I've preached through Revelation. It's one of those books where Christ is on every line, application jumps out, and you've got a lot of great tools. Dr. Johnson's book Triumph of the Lamb is a great aid to the preacher. Revelation is a great book to preach, and I hope that the church recovers its love of it, without reading it through that dispensational or preterist lens’as you were getting at, Dr. Baugh, where you absolutely gut it of any practical significance. The practical significance of Revelation is that it speaks to Christians in every age, and it tells us about the kingdom of Christ and its conquest.

MSH: And that's why it's a difficult book for us to answer all the questions that people come up with in an interview like this. You really do have to sit down and read a book like Triumph of the Lamb in order to understand how the argument in Revelation unfolds.

KR: If you've been raised in dispensationalism, you first have to erase the tape. You need to look at the book as though you have not encountered it before, because most people bring so many presuppositions to it that they're looking at it in light of current events, and so they're looking at it in a skewed way. You almost have to say: I'm asking the wrong questions; I'm going to put all that I know about this book aside and take a look at it fresh. One thing I advise people to do is get the Bible on audio. It's great to just hear it a couple of times, the way it would have been done. Just listen to it. But you need to come to the text fresh and listen to it new for the first time.

MSH: What do you do with things like the numbers, such as 144,000 and so on?

DEJ: I once was invited by a group of pastors to have a conversation with a dispensational brother, a New Testament scholar whom I highly respect. I quickly read through his two-volume commentary on the book of Revelation and found the statement, "There is not one single number in the book of Revelation that is symbolic." But I also found in his commentary that in Revelation 4 and 5, when he comments on the seven spirits of God, he is not ready to trade in the Trinity for a nine-person deity. He understands quite clearly that there is symbolism, that the seven spirits of God are symbolic of the complete omnipresence and the power and the omniscience of the one Holy Spirit.

So starting from that, I didn't get a lot of distance with him on other numbers, but at least I think every Christian I've ever met acknowledges that there are symbolic numbers. For instance, 12 x 12,000 is typical of the symbolism of the covenant people of God. And, of course, we come to the end of the book of Revelation and the New Jerusalem is shown in those kinds of terms: 12,000 stadia, a Roman measurement; and if you look at all the edges of this cubic New Jerusalem, a new sanctuary, you have 12 edges. Very interesting: 12 x 12,000 is there. And the 12 apostles of the Lamb and the tribes of Israel. The unity of the church across that transition points from old covenant to new.

MSH: If you took that literally, it would be, what, the size of a baseball stadium?

KR: It would be a big cube, and how would we live in a big cube? I remember thinking when I was going through this disillusionment with all of that: how on earth are you going to take that and the latter chapters of Ezekiel literally?

DEJ: If you think about it, it's 12,000 stadia high as well as wide. That actually would put it within the orbits of some of the lower satellites that we have in orbit now. So it's a little bit of a stretch to take that literally.

SMB: I think what Dennis mentioned has to be underlined: the seven spirits. Right away, before he sees any visions, John gives the apostolic blessing, as most of the apostles do in their letters. He says, "Grace, mercy and peace be yours from he who is and was and is coming." And then he says, "From the seven spirits of God and from Jesus Christ." Here's a blessing in the name of God and seven spirits. What are you going to do with that? Where else does an apostle bless the church in the name of angels? No, these are not angels. So right away we have this use of symbolic numbers. And what happened to the poor Colossians? They're right in the middle of those seven churches. Colossae is a town in the middle of some of these other churches and they're left out, so we have only seven churches being addressed. If you look on a map, however, they appear as a big circle, which is where a messenger would go’in a natural circle. It's therefore the whole church and is a symbolic number as well.

DEJ: Reinforced by the refrain at the end of every letter to each church, "Hear what the Spirit says to the churches." Not just to a single church.

SMB: There's actually a reference in one of the church fathers where he takes it that way. This is not a new interpretation either. They understood that and accepted that.

MSH: Now, at the other end, preterism emphasizes that these prophecies have been fulfilled. If you go all the way to the full preterist position, they believe that the resurrection and the last judgment have occurred. There isn't any Bible prophecy left to be fulfilled. So here on one end of this spectrum you have dispensationalism saying that pretty much everything is in the future, and on the other end, preterism saying that pretty much everything is in the past. How do we respond to a preterist interpretation of the book of Revelation?

KR: I think it's helpful to at least ask the question, why is preterism popular again? What prompted this recent resurgence of preterism? I think there are two reasons. One is that the dispensationalists have overreached in setting dates. I recall several times in my late teens going to a big local church in Orange County with a lot of other teenagers and hearing the noted pastor say, "Well, this is going to be the last New Year's Eve we're going to be together because the rapture is imminent." You hear that so many times that after a while you begin to say, "This can't be right. I don't need a verse to know that there's something wrong with this." So along comes the preterist position that says, "Yes, that is wrong, and here's why: these things have already been fulfilled." That makes sense. So a lot of it is a reaction to dispensationalism.

MSH: Especially if you can plug in verses like in Matthew 24, about the destruction of Jerusalem and other things.

KR: Even in the book of Revelation, the time is near. Revelation 1:7 says that he's coming in the clouds; every eye will see him. There are some indicators in Revelation that this is going to happen soon. So there's that reaction to dispensationalism. On the other hand, you have the rise of partial preterism. People such as R. C. Sproul, Ken Gentry, and others have offered this view: the Lord came in judgment on Israel in 70 A.D., the cosmic signs are referring to that, but the Lord is coming yet again. I think partial preterism is so internally inconsistent that if you're going to become a partial preterist, it's really easy to go all the way to full preterism because of some of the problems internally. I think a lot of the resurgence of preterism recently is because partial preterism has internal inconsistencies.

MSH: So the traditional amillennial interpretation would say that you have some prophecies that are fulfilled; for instance, Jesus saying, "This generation will not pass away until these things are fulfilled" and "Flee to the hills of Judea." When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, it's pretty obvious. And the temple’not one stone will be left upon another, and it wasn't in 70 A.D. But some prophecies are yet to be fulfilled. So we don't take extreme positions, one way or the other, dispensationalist or preterist.

The analogy that springs to mind is skipping a rock across a pond. First it hits one place and then it hits another. Cyrus, king of Persia, is clearly the first person Isaiah has in view. But he doesn't quite fit all of the descriptions of that messianic figure. It really isn't completely fulfilled until Christ appears. If it's that way in Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Zachariah, why wouldn't it be that way in the book of Revelation? Why wouldn't there be multiple fulfillments until we reach the final end, the final consummation? Why wouldn't there be many tribulations, for example, leading up to one great tribulation?

SMB: The dispensationalist and the preterist views both seem to want to make the historical references to these visions far more precise than they are intended, because these visions have the wonderful capacity to reveal and not to reveal at the same time. To say something sufficient’and, as Dennis mentioned, that's the key word for the purpose of the book’but not to tell you everything; for there are times and seasons that the Father is not going to tell you, as Jesus says in Acts 1, that he has reserved for himself. But he's going to tell us something. So he tells us something here, and it's relevant for all ages. In many times, you're looking at a vision that really can relate to a lot of things. Similar to what Jesus says in Matthew 24: "There will be wars and rumors of wars." And that's not just one age; that's the whole age.

I think that's a key idea for interpreting a book like Daniel, Ezekiel, or others. Daniel is told explicitly: "These things are revealed," but then, "Seal up the book; it's not for your day." He is told something sufficient for faith but not exhaustive for the newspaper. That's the key. You can take this and learn from it and know that Jesus is working in history. It's not just spiritual ideas. There is actual history unfolded here, but it's talked about in a way that always leaves you wondering if this is the fulfillment. Well, yes, and he's going to do more. This is an important principle, I believe.

KR: I think George Ladd is helpful on this in his book, The Presence of the Future. Ladd was my last-ditch attempt to stay premillennial, but there are several things in Ladd that I think are very useful. He makes the point that this tension between the already and the not yet is surely intentional because it does two things. First, it precludes us from date setting; it precludes us from saying that 70 A.D. will be the end when we see Jerusalem surrounded by armies. We know that's going to be important, but we know that's not going to be the end of the age. Second, it also exhorts us to be active until the Lord comes. So neither can we set dates nor can we sit around and do nothing. It puts us in a tension where we're required to act; we're required to go about the Lord's work until he comes again.

MSH: When do you think the book of Revelation was written?

DEJ: My book neatly steps around that because I don't think that's essential. I'm inclined to go with the tradition from the patristic period that it was seen and written during the reign of Domitian in the mid-90s. It seems to make sense to me in terms of the distance, for example, of the church of Ephesus from what we know of the planting of that church at an earlier point. And if I were a preterist, or even a partial preterist, I would feel absolutely obligated to affirm a date before 70 A.D. so I could have a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem. But I'm more inclined to go with the evidence we have from the early church in the mid-90s. There may be some retrospective on the fall of Jerusalem, but fundamentally the enemy in its manifestation confronting the first-century churches was Rome.

MSH: Which also would make sense of the martyrs who were already in heaven under the throne crying out, "How long, O Lord?"

DEJ: In the vision, we're told that they have a sense of delay, the length of time since they've been martyred.

SMB: That's a good point. There are a couple of other historical things, too. We know that Laodicea was basically leveled by an earthquake around 60 or 61; and if this is 65, it is really too early to say, "You are rich and in need of nothing," because they're still rebuilding, and in antiquity that takes a long time. And then the church father Polycarp writes to the Philippians, "When Paul wrote his letter to you, we had not been founded yet." Well, Paul wrote Philippians around that same time, 60 or 61, and Smyrna had not been founded as a church then, according to Polycarp, who is pretty historically reliable.

KR: I think the preterists have to really reach far to identify Babylon as apostate Israel, when it was very clear in everybody's mind that the city with seven hills is not a reference to Jerusalem, but a reference to Rome. I think it's very clear that Babylon in the book of Revelation is Rome and the Roman Empire is symbolic of all God-hating imperialistic empires.

MSH: Dennis, why did you pick The Triumph of the Lamb as the title for your book?

DEJ: I had another title in mind, but the publisher liked The Triumph of the Lamb better. Since then, I've gotten so many compliments on it that I've sometimes taken credit for having chosen it. It is a wonderful title for a study of the book of Revelation. I knew that the book of Revelation is about the triumph of the Lamb, but I guess I hadn't noticed how much it had come through in my study of it.

There's paradox there, because as Revelation 5 introduces Jesus, it introduces him as the lion of the tribe of Judah who has triumphed. That's what John hears. What he sees is a lamb standing as slain, and the lamb is praised for having been slain and for redeeming people from all the peoples of the earth. That's the triumph of the lion’it's the slaughter of the lamb. So there you have the sacrifice of Christ as the pivotal point of the victory of God in all of history.

KR: Triumph of the Lamb really is a great commentary. I would encourage everybody to read it. It's just outstanding. May it live on as long as William Hendriksen's More Than Conquerors, which is over fifty years now.

MSH: And if you read that together with A Case for Amillennialism by Kim Riddlebarger, you will have a terrific summary of the amillennial perspective more generally and the book of Revelation specifically. You can see how amillennialism comes together as an approach to eschatology from Kim's book, then go to Dennis Johnson's book and see how it actually makes a lot more sense out of a book that a lot of us have come to believe is too mysterious for us to really understand. When you read The Triumph of the Lamb, you come away thinking this is not a book full of puzzles; this is a wonderful book full of explanation, full of wonderful unfolding, living up to its name, "the Revelation"’the unveiling.

Thanks for talking about this important subject. I hope people will come to appreciate the book of Revelation in a new way, and see it as a comfort that the Lamb has triumphed over their own enemy, sin and death, and that they too can be a part of that great throng worshipping around the throne, falling down with the elders, and casting their crowns before him.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, November 1st 2011

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