PMT 2013-034 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
The opening words of Revelation are absolutely essential for its proper interpretation. Unfortunately, too many prophecy enthusiasts leap over the beginning of Revelation, never securing a proper footing for the treacherous path ahead. But stealing a line from Isaiah, the preterist asks: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?” (Isa. 40:21). The preterist insists that the key to Revelation is found in its front door.
We see this very clearly in John’s introduction:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place . . . . Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:1a, 3)”
Here — before the dramatic visions flash on the scene and the highly-wrought imagery confound the reader — John provides an indispensable clue for interpreting his book: The events of Revelation “must soon [Gk.: tachos] take place” (v. 1) because “the time is near” [Gk.: eggus] (v. 2).
Greek lexicons and modern translations agree: these terms indicate temporal proximity. Throughout the New Testament tachos means “quickly, at once, without delay, shortly.” The term eggus (“at hand”) also speaks of temporal nearness: of the future (Matt. 26:18), of summer (Matt. 24:32), of a festival (John 2:13). The inspired Apostle John clearly informs his original audience nearly 2000 years ago that they should expect the prophecies to “take place” (Rev. 1:1) in their lifetime. As Milton Terry notes, the events of Revelation are “but a few years in the future when John wrote.”
The significance of these words lies not only in their introducing Revelation, but in their concluding its drama. They bracket and, therefore, qualify the entire Revelation. Notice how Revelation ends:
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place“. . . . Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.” (Rev. 22:6, 10)
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What is more, the terms appear frequently in Revelation, showing John’s urgent emphasis on temporal expectancy: We find tachos (“soon”) in Revelation 1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 22: 6, 7, 12, 20 and eggus (“near”) in Revelation 1:3; 3:10; 22:10. Thus, as Robert Thomas, who opposes preterism, admits: “A major thrust of Revelation is its emphasis upon the shortness of time before the fulfillment.” John emphasizes two clear terms with similar meanings, thereby pre-empting any confusion among his readers regarding when the prophecies will occur.
The preterist, then, argues that John himself positively asserts the events are near in his day. Consequently, they must lie in our distant past. Preterism is exegetically based, being rooted in sound hermeneutical principle.
But before moving on I must briefly reckon with two common rejoinders to this analysis:
“John is speaking of God’s timing, not man’s. Scripture informs us that a thousand years with the Lord is ‘as a day’” (2 Pet. 3:8).
This popular objection strains under the weight of the following evidence: (1) Revelation is personal-motivational. John is here writing to men, not about God. Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:8 is clearly a theological statement; Revelation 1:1 and 3 are human directives, directives to be heard and acted upon (Rev. 1:3). Peter is dealing with the opposite problem of John: Peter is explaining (on the basis of God’s eternality) the delay of Christ’s Second Advent (2 Peter 2:4); John is warning (on the basis of man’s suffering) of the nearness of temporal judgment.
(2) Revelation is concrete-historical. John is writing to seven specific, historical churches (Rev. 1:4, 11; 2:1—3:22) about their present dire circumstances (they are in “tribulation,” Rev. 1:9; 2:9-10, 13), their need for patience (Rev. 1:9; 2:2-3, 10, 13, 25; 3:10-11), and soon-coming judgments (Rev. 2:5, 16, 25; 3:3, 11; 22:10, 18-19).
Robert Thomas, approvingly citing William Lee, notes of the epistles to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3: “One cannot, however, overlook the historical character which is stamped on the Epistles throughout . . . and which distinctly points to a state of things actually before St. John’s mind as existing in the several churches.” That is, a number of the historical, geographical, and political allusions in the letters show that John does, in fact, have in view the specific churches he addresses. He would be taunting them mercilessly if he were discussing events 2000 or more years distant. God answers the anxious cry “How long?” by urging their patience only a “little while longer” (Rev. 6:10-11). Revelation promises there will no longer be “delay” (Rev. 10:6). The ad hoc nature of Revelation demands a preterist approach.
(3) Revelation is emphatic-declarative. The expressions of imminency are didactic (non- symbolic), frequent (in the introduction, conclusion, and elsewhere), and varied (see above discussions of tachos and eggus). How else could John have expressed nearness in time if not by these terms? All English translations employ terms expressing temporal nearness.
(4) Revelation is parallel-harmonic. The temporal expectation in Revelation parallels New Testament teaching elsewhere. For instance, Robert Thomas parallels Revelation 6 with Matthew 24: “Jesus in His discourse was clearly anticipating what he was to show John in much greater detail.” Pate concurs. I agree. Interestingly, in Matthew 24:34 Jesus holds the same expectancy as John: “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (cp. Matt. 23:36). He urges his hearers, as John does his own, to expect these judgments in their own lifetimes.
In Mark 9:1 Jesus promises that some of his hearers would not “taste of death” before witnessing the “coming of the kingdom with power.” This almost certainly refers to the destruction of the temple at the behest of Christ (rather than to the transfiguration which is only six days away). Similar notes of the temporal proximity of divinely-governed crises abound in the New Testament: Matthew 26:64; Acts 2:16-20, 40; Romans 13:11,12; 16:20; 1 Corinthians 7:26, 29-31; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:16; Hebrews 10:25, 37; James 5:8, 9; 1 Peter 4:5, 7; and 1 John 2:17, 18. How else could the New Testament express nearness more clearly? As these verses so evidently show, dramatic divine judgments are: “soon,” “near,” “at hand,” “at the door,” “present”; “the hour has come”; “the time is short”; “the wrath of God is coming”; “the day is approaching” in “just a little while.” These events are to occur in “this generation,” before “some of you standing here taste of death.”
“These events do occur in the first century, but they occur again later in history, either through double-fulfillment or through repeated recurrence until the end as the already/not yet nature of prophecy unfolds.”
Three difficulties plague this type of response: (1) There is no exegetical warrant for it: the statement is pure theological assertion. What is more, this approach not only empties John’s express declarations of meaning (“these things must shortly come to pass“), but it contravenes a specific angelic directive contrasting John’s responsibility to Daniel’s. An angel commands Daniel to “seal up” his prophecy for later times (Dan. 12:4), but commands John (who lives in “the last hour,” 1 John 2:18) to “not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is at hand” (Rev. 22:10). Nevertheless, Marvin Pate holds that Revelation “does not imply that Nero filled the complete expectation of the coming antichrist, but, as a precursor to such, he is certainly a good starting place.” As I shall show, Nero does fulfill Revelation’s prophecy. Why look for further fufillment?
(2) It requires us to believe that the many specific events, things, and personages of Revelation will appear repeatedly on the scene of earth history. In the same order? In the same geographic regions? With continual groupings of 144,000 being sealed? With constant beasts designated by the same number 666? On and on I could go. For example, Pate suggests that “the signs of the times began with Jesus and his generation,” and history witnesses “the coming intensification and culmination of those signs of the times” which begin in the first century. Such a position seems to stretch credulity to the breaking point.
The already/not yet theological principle, though valid and widely accepted by evangelicals, cannot govern whole, vast, complex works such as Revelation. The already/not yet principle applies to unitary, simple constructs: the kingdom, salvation, new creation, and so forth. The principle snaps apart when we stretch it over so vast a work as Revelation. Furthermore, how can this principle explain the simultaneous operation in one book of such allegedly global themes operating as judgment (Rev. 6-19) and blessing (Rev. 20-22)? Pate’s use of this principle to explain Revelation seems more hopeful than helpful.
(3) This approach not only denies what John expressly affirms, but confuses principial application with historic event. That is, even were the events of Revelation repeated, that would not diminish the fact of their direct first century historical fulfillment — with all its pregnant meaning in that unique era which effects the closing of the sacrificial system, the setting aside of Israel, and the universalizing of the true faith. For instance, Exodus-like events occurring after the Mosaic Exodus do not remove the redemptive-historical significance of that original historical episode. Pate specifically notes the mark of the Beast “can be understood as pointing a guilty finger at those Jews in the first century.” Why, then, should we look for further fulfillments beyond this most relevant first century one?
According to John, then, the prophetic events are “soon” (Rev. 1:1) and “at hand” (Rev. 1:3), so that his original audience must “hold fast” (Rev. 2:25; 3:11), waiting only “a little while longer” (Rev. 6:10). “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Rev. 3:11). The modern student of prophecy must not let his presupposed theological scheme or predetermined interpretive methodology blunt these forceful assertions.
Nourishment from the Word (by Ken Gentry)
Reformed studies covering baptism, creation, creeds, tongues, God’s law, apologetics, and the Book of Revelation