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Exegetical gerrymandering and the time texts of Scripture

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coming-soonOn February 23, I participated in a Symposium on the book of Revelation in Reno, Nevada (you can find supplemental study material here), with Dr. James M. Hamilton, Jr. Dr. Hamilton is the author of Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches. He serves as Associate Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He took an eclectic, non-dispensational, premillennial view. Dr. Sam Waldron is the academic dean of Midwest Center for Theological Students where he teaches Systematic Theology and author of The End Times Made Simple. Dr. Waldron defended a version of the Idealist approach to Revelation.

As with all debates and symposiums, there is no way to respond to everything someone says. But it was rather frustrating not hear how the crucial time texts of Revelation should be understood. Neither Hamilton nor Waldron addressed the topic even though it was a significant part of my presentation. I started with Revelation 22:10, compared it to Daniel 12:4, and then went back to Revelation 1:1 and 3. While it wasn’t the only point I made, it was obvious that it was an important point.

There were a number of statements made by Dr. Hamilton that shocked me, especially coming from someone who teaches in a seminary. I’ll get to some of them in future articles. I want to spend time on the time-text argument.

I won’t be quoting from Hamilton and Waldron since they didn’t make an argument about the time texts, so I’ll have to use representative samples from other writers to show that exegetical gerrymandering is the name of the game.

Revelation begins with a statement of when the revealed events were to take place:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must [δεῖ] soon [τάχει] take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 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 [ἐγγύς] (Rev. 1:1–3).

J. Dwight Pentecost, a noted dispensational futurist, comments very briefly on the topic of timing when it comes to prophecy: “It is to be observed that the time element holds a relatively small place in prophecy.” [1] Let’s put Pentecost’s claim to the test. The words “soon” and “near” are always used in the New Testament for events that are close in terms of time. For example

  • John 11:29:And when she heard it, she arose quickly [ταχὺ], and was coming to Him.”
  • John 11:31: “The Jews then who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly [ταχέως] and went out, followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.”
  • John 13:27: And after the morsel, Satan then entered into him. Jesus therefore said to him, “What you do, do quickly [τάχιον].”
  • John 2:13: “And the Passover of the Jews was at hand [ἐγγὺς], and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”
  • John 6:4: “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand [ἐγγὺς].”
  • John 7:2: “Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was at hand [ἐγγὺς].”
  • John 11:55: “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand [ἐγγὺς], and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover, to purify themselves.”

In all the examples I’ve read, quickly is not only about the speed of the action but the immediacy of the action. According to Grant S. Osborne in his commentary on Revelation, the Greek word taxu “does not mean Christ is coming ‘quickly’ but ‘very soon’ (as in 1:7; 22:7).” [2]

Thomas Ice writes that “the terms ‘quickly’ and ‘near’ are more properly interpreted as qualitative indicators describing how Christ will return. How will He return? He will come back ‘quickly’ or ‘suddenly.’” [3]

The problem with Ice’s analysis is that “quickly” does not anticipate a delay in any of the verses where the word is used (e.g., Matt. 5:25; 28:7; Luke 15:22; 16:6; John 11:29, 31; 13:27; Acts 22:18). With “quickly” the action happens soon after. In fact, Ice uses Acts 22:18 as “descriptive of the manner in which the action takes place: ‘I saw Him saying to me, “Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.”’” If we apply Ice’s understanding of “quickly” to this verse, it would read this way: “When you decide to get out of Jerusalem, do it quickly.” But this makes no sense since Jesus’ words were a warning for Paul to “make haste” in leaving the city, that is, to do it “quickly” because he had enemies in the city. If he waited and only acted speedily when he decided to leave, then Jesus’ warning was inconsequential.

Ice contrasts Acts 22:18 with 1 Timothy 3:14, a verse he describes as a “timing passage”: “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long [en tachei].” If 1 Timothy 3:14 is a timing passage, then so is Revelation 1:1 since both use the same Greek word (en tachei). The Greek construction is identical in all three verses (Acts 22:18; 1 Tim. 3:14; Rev. 1:1). So let’s use “before long” in Revelation 1:1 and see how it reads: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must take place before long [en tachei].” “Before long” does not have the meaning of an unspecified time going on for centuries!

In Revelation 1:1, John was shown “the things which must shortly take place.” Why must they “shortly take place? Because the reader is told that “the time is near” (1:3). Jesus defines “near” to mean “at the door” (Matt. 24:33). James writes that “the coming of the Lord is at hand,” and he defines “at hand” to mean “right at the door” (James 5:8, 9). If the purpose of Revelation was to demonstrate that the events of the book were a prophetic certainty that could occur at any time, John could have been told to write, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His bond-servants the things which must take place.” This wording would have had the effect of expressing necessity without committing to any time parameters, the very thing dispensationalists claim the Bible teaches. Revelation uses this construction in several places (4:1; 10:11:5; 17:10; 20:3). But by adding “shortly,” Jesus is telling Revelation’s first readers that not only are these coming events a certainty, they will happen quickly because “the time is near.” Let’s let Milton Terry, the author of Biblical Hermeneutics, put the debate over time words into perspective:

When a writer says that an event will shortly and speedily come to pass, or is about to take place, it is contrary to all propriety to declare that his statements allow us to believe the event is in the far future. It is a reprehensible abuse of language to say that the words immediately, or near at hand, mean ages hence, or after a long time. Such a treatment of the language of Scripture is even worse than the theory of a double sense. [4]

Terry is a good judge in this matter since he is respected by futurists and those who believe that the majority of events described in Revelation have already been fulfilled. He is to the point—near means near all the time!

Charles L. Feinberg writes in his commentary on Revelation that the phrase “things which must shortly come to pass” in Revelation 1:1 “gives no basis for the historical interpretation of the book. Events are seen here from the perspective of the Lord and not from the human viewpoint (cf. II Pet 3:8). The same Greek words appear in Luke 18:7–8 (Gr en tachei), where the delay is clearly a prolonged one.” [5]  He continues with this line of argument in his comments on “The time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3): “These words (Gr ho kairos engus) appear only twice in the Revelation. Neither reference indicates the possible length involved. Again, all is seen from the perspective of God.” [6]

John Walvoord writes of “must shortly come to pass” in Revelation 1:1: “The idea is not that the event may occur soon, but when it does, it will be sudden (cf. Luke 18:8; Acts 12:7; 22:18; 25:4; Rom. 16:20).” A similar interpretation is given to “for the time is near [at hand]” (Rev. 1:3): “The expression ‘at hand’ indicates nearness from the standpoint of prophetic revelation, not necessarily that the event will immediately occur.” [7]

  • Jesus said, “My time is at hand [Lit., near]” (Matt. 26:18). Does Walvoord’s method apply here? Was Jesus’ time chronologically near? (cf. Matt. 3:15; Mark 1:15).
  • “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Matt. 24:32). How far away is summer? The analogy makes it evident that “near” means chronological proximity: appearance of leaves = nearness of summer.
  • “Even so you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door” (24:33). Here we find a brief commentary on what “near” means — “Right at the door”: Signs = nearness of Jesus’ return.

John Walvoord’s comments on Revelation 11:14, where the word “quickly” is used to describe the timing of Jesus’ coming, demonstrate how exegetical gerrymandering takes place: “The third woe contained in the seventh trumpet is announced as coming quickly. The end of the age is rapidly approaching.[8]

How is it possible that the word “quickly” in Revelation 11:14 can mean “the end of the age is rapidly approaching,” but Jesus’ use of coming “quickly” cannot mean “rapidly approaching” in 1:1, 2:16, 3:11, 22:7, 12, and 20? In fact, Walvoord’s comments on Revelation 22:7 demonstrate how shaky his position is: “The thought seems to be that when the action comes, it will be sudden.” [9] For a dispensationalist it may seem to be that way, but the Bible doesn’t say it that way. Nowhere does Jesus say, “When I come it will be fast.” He says, “I am coming quickly.” Robert Thomas, also a dispensational premillennial futurist, argues in a similar way: “A major thrust of Revelation is its emphasis upon the shortness of time before fulfillment.” [10]

Let’s put this in everyday English. You find that your son’s room is a mess. You give the following instructions: “Clean up your room, and do it quickly. I’ll be back soon to check on it.” Two hours later you return and examine your son’s progress and find things as they were when you gave him the work order. You ask him why he didn’t clean his room as he was told to do, reminding him that you wanted to do it quickly and that you would return soon. He says, “Dad, you said you would be back ‘soon.’ As you know, the time element holds a relatively small place in room cleaning. Besides, when I start to clean it, I’ll do it quickly! I could clean it today or next week, and I’ll be fast when I do it!”

Premillennialist George Eldon Ladd’s comment is interesting and troubling:

“These events are ‘soon to take place’ (cf. 11:18; 22:10). These words have troubled commentators. The simplest solution is to take the preterist view and to say that John, like the entire Christian community, thought that the coming of the Lord was near, when in fact they were wrong. Our Lord himself seems to share this error in perspective in the saying: ‘This generation will not pass away before all these things take place’ (Mark 13:30). . . . However, the simple meaning cannot be avoided. The problem is raised by the fact that the prophets were little interested in chronology, and the future was always viewed as imminent.” [11]

Thomas Ice, as well as more prominent futurists, dismiss the “plain and normal” interpretation because such an interpretation would mean nearness of fulfillment for the events predicted. The objection is that such an alternative is impossible because a futurist approach to the book would require the events to have taken place in John’s lifetime. As the matter stands, it has been almost nineteen hundred years since the prediction and much of what the book predicts still has not begun to happen. The response of this view to the seeming difficulty raised by the delay of more than nineteen hundred years is not that John was mistaken but that time in the Apocalypse is computed either relatively to the divine apprehension as here and in 22:10 (cf. also 1:3; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20) or absolutely in itself as long or short (cf. 8:1; 20:2). When measuring time, Scripture has a different standard from ours (cf. 1 John 2:18) (Lee). The purpose of en tachei [soon] is to teach the imminence of the events foretold, not to set a time limit within which they must occur (Johnson). It must be kept in mind that God is not limited by considerations of time in the same way man is (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8). [12]

Thomas continually begs the question. The dispute is over when the events are to take place. He begins with the premise that the events prophesied in Revelation have not taken place and then adjusts the meaning of the time texts to fit his futurist position. He assumes to be true what he must prove to be true, that the events have not taken place. If the time texts are taken in their “plain sense,” then there are only two possible meanings: (1) God was mistaken and the Bible is filled with unreliable information, or (2) the events described therein came to pass soon after the prophecy was given.

Earlier in his commentary Thomas writes that “The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern on interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation.” [13]

Again and again Thomas abandons this principle when he comes to the time texts. He uses 1 John 2:18 in an attempt to prove that “Scripture has a different standard from ours” when it comes to measuring time. This can only be true if one begins with the unproven premise that John was not describing some near eschatological event. John’s readers had heard that antichrist was coming. John corrects them by stating that “many antichrists have arisen.” This was evidence that it was the “last hour.” For Thomas, “last hour” is nearly two thousand years. Is this what dispensationalists mean by the “principle of literal interpretation” and the “plain sense” method?

“In the original text, the Greek word used is taxu, and this does not mean ‘soon,’ in the sense of ‘sometime,’ but rather ‘now,’ ‘immediately.’ Therefore, we must understand Rev. 22:12 in this way: ‘I am coming now, bringing my recompense.’ The concluding word of Rev. 22:20 is: ‘He who testifies to these things says, “surely I am coming soon.”’ Here we again find the word taxu, so this means: I am coming quickly, immediately. This is followed by the prayer: ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’. . . The Apocalypse expresses the fervent waiting for the end within the circles in which the writer lived—not an expectation that will happen at some unknown point X in time (just to repeat this), but one in the immediate present.” [14]

Revelation is introduced by time words, and it concludes with the same time words. Jesus says, "And behold, I am coming quickly [ταχὺ]. Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7, 12, 20). Then John is told by the angel in Revelation 22:10, “‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near [ἐγγὺς].’” Notice the use of “quickly” in the middle portions of Revelation (2:16; 3:11; 11:14]. In what way would a soon return be a threat to Pergamum and Philadelphia if quickly meant “it will be fast when I come”?

While the time indicators do not tell us when Revelation was written, they do indicate that events had to have taken place within a time period that was relatively close. To argue that what was revealed to John was nothing more than a claim that the events could happen at any moment over a period of thousands of years does not fit how “near” and “shortly” are used elsewhere by John and the other New Testament writers.

R. C. Sproul has some direct words aimed at commentators who put a timeless slant on time indicators that are used repeatedly in the New Testament and have a very clear meaning in other contexts:

When F. F. Bruce speaks of faith making the time be “at hand,” this sounds all too much like Rudolf Bultmann’s famous theology of timelessness, which removes the object of faith from the realm of real history and consigns it to a supertemporal realm of the always present hic et nunc [here and now].” [15]

If these verses do not mean that Jesus’ return in judgment was not chronologically near to Revelation’s first readers, then what words could He have used if He wanted His first readers to know that these events were chronologically near for them and only chronologically near for some distant future generation? How would Jesus have said it?

 

  1. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Academie, (1958) 1964), 46.[]
  2. Revelation: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Academic, 2002), 194, note 24.[]
  3. Thomas Ice, “Preterist ‘Time Texts,’” The End Times Controversy: The Second Coming Under Attack, eds. Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2003), 102. “Suddenly” is a completely different word in Greek (Mark. 13:36; Luke 2:13; 9:39). Another Greek word expresses a similar idea (Luke 21:34; 1 Thess. 5:3).[]
  4. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1883), 495–496.[]
  5. Luke 18:7‑8: If the unrighteous judge will give justice to the widow because of her persistence, can we expect anything less from God? The widow received justice in her lifetime! God is not like the unrighteous judge, “He will bring about justice for them speedily” (v. 8).[]
  6. Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation,” Liberty Bible Commentary, eds. Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll (Lynchburg, VA: The Old‑Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 2:790.[]
  7. John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, (1966) 1987), 35, 37.[]
  8. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 183.[]
  9. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 333.[]
  10. Robert Thomas, Revelation 1–7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 55.[]
  11. George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 22.[]
  12. Thomas, Revelation 1–7, 55–56. Earlier in this volume, Thomas insists on a literal hermeneutic (29–39). This principle is cleverly avoided when it comes to the plain meaning of the time texts. Compare what Thomas writes about Scripture using a “different standard from ours” when “measuring time” with these verses: “She arose quickly, and was coming to him” (John 11:29); “Mary rose up quickly and went out” (11:31); “‘What you do, do quickly’” (13:27); “I am coming quickly” (Rev. 3:11); “The second woe is past; behold, the third woe is coming quickly” (11:14). What does “quickly” mean in these texts? The dispensationalist wants us to believe that Revelation 3:11 reads something like this: “When I come, it will be fast.” This is impossible. Consider Revelation 11:14. When the second woe is past, the third woe will follow soon after.[]
  13. Thomas, Revelation 1–7, 32. Emphasis added.[]
  14. Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity: From the Beginnings to the Threshold of the Reformation, trans. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985), 1:88.[]
  15. R. C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus:  When Did Jesus Say He Would Return? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 108–109.[]
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