REVELATION’S PARAENETIC IRRELEVANCE?

PMW 2022-058 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

Many opponents of the preterist analysis complain that it removes any practical usefulness and continuing relevance of Revelation today. This is a rather common complaint. It arises from the evangelical conviction that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Thus, if it renders Revelation irrelevant, it must not be a proper hermeneutic approach.

Theologians’ Concerns

F. J. Murphy expresses the general concern among many: “an abiding problem is what relevance Revelation has to today’s world.” Abraham Kuyper complains that preterism “renders the book of Revelation meaningless to us, as it makes its vision to hark back to events that transpired in the early centuries of the Christian church.” Craig Koester applies this issue particularly to preterism when he suggests that “the problem with historical interpretation is that while it restrains certain excesses it can also distance readers from the text in a way that deprives the text of its power.”

Arthur W. Wainwright rejects Wettstein’s preterism, noting that “he neglected the message’s relevance for later generations.” Then he writes off other preterists, seeing it as a “danger” that “their chief interest has been to understand the Apocalypse in terms of the early church’s situation, not to demonstrate its relevance for the modern world.” Wilfrid Harrington agrees with this concern: “While the view makes the work meaningful to its original readers, it renders it basically meaningless for all subsequent readers.” Simon Kistemaker complains: “for believers in subsequent eras, this message has only secondary importance.”

John F. Walvoord concurs: “The preterist view, in general, tends to destroy any future significance of the book, which becomes a literary curiosity with little prophetic meaning.” Donald B. Guthrie complains that “surer exegesis will want rather to draw out the permanent spiritual values against the historical background. . . . It enunciates principles which are always applicable.” It appears that this objection would prefer to listen to John’s sermons to the world rather than read his Revelation to his beleaguered audience.

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Book of Revelation Made Easy
(by Ken Gentry)

Helpful introduction to Revelation presenting keys for interpreting. Also provides studies of basic issues in Revelation’s story-line.|

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com

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Preterist Response

Though quite widespread, this is the weakest of the objections to preterism. Note the following responses.

First, such complaints are actually declaring an approach we should reject outright, for the argument reduces to the following: “We must reject Revelation’s original meaning for the seven first-century churches in Asia Minor if we cannot discern any practical use of it today.” What if John really did mean to focus on his own contemporary circumstances? For the people to whom he actually writes? Who are suffering for the faith? What if he did really mean to inform them that the events “must shortly take place” (1:1) because “the time is near” (1:3)? Who are we to discount his original meaning so that we may import our own — because it is more relevant to us? I agree with C. K. Barrett — though he is speaking in another context: He warns of the “danger of the unforgivable exegetical sin, the sin of attempting to make a passage mean something other than the meaning intended by the author and conveyed by the words.”

Second, biblical scholarship recognizes that much of the NT is “occasional” literature. That is, most of the epistles are written to deal with specific issues arising in the first-century church, and often in particular local communities. Though Kistemaker complains that preterism reduces Revelation to only “secondary importance” for us today, he himself admits in his very next paragraph that “Paul wrote his epistles to specific churches and individuals, but the message of these letters is as relevant to the worldwide church today as it was to Christians in the middle of the first century.”

A good example of this is found in 1 Corinthians. It is particularly significant in this regard in that Paul deals with one specific issue after another that is presented to him by the Corinthians regarding their own unique struggles and controversies (e.g., 1Co 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). Consider the case of a particular individual involved in a sinful relationship with his father’s wife: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife” (1Co 5:1). Yet we may draw from this very narrow, historical situation practical principles for our own use today. And we certainly should not dismiss Paul’s letter because it does not deal directly with our own situation today.

Stephen Smalley well notes of Revelation that “the storyline can be deconstructed , and the audience can become any listeners at any time. For the writer’s message has a spiritual and doctrinal and practical dimension, which is ultimately universal and eternal in significance.” Specifically, in Revelation we learn of God’s judgment upon his OT people for breaking covenant with him (thereby demonstrating the importance of covenant-keeping), see Christ defending his persecuted saints who valiantly endure for the faith (thereby encouraging confidence in other trying situations), learn of the conclusion of the old covenant economy and the universalization of the true faith (thereby discouraging a return to Judaic worship-forms), hear his explaining the loss of Jerusalem and the temple (though both of these long figure prominently in redemptive history), discover the ultimate source of evil in the world (Satan), and more.

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Blessed Is He Who Reads: A Primer on the Book of Revelation
By Larry E. Ball

A basic survey of Revelation from the preterist perspective. It sees John as focusing on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com

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Revelation is vitally important to the first-century church in showing that her first trials will not be her last. She must know that if she can in her infancy endure the most grievous trials from her religious mother (Israel) and her political rulers (Rome), she can endure anything as she grows to maturity. Preterist Moses Stuart comments regarding God’s first-century judgments: “This overthrow was an earnest of the fate of all future persecutions.” Therefore, it holds forth a future glory for God’s people that will issue out of her earlier sufferings.

Continuing in Stuart, he puts the matter well when he explains: “I do not think it was the definite purpose of the Apocalyptist that his book should be considered, in respect to its general tenor and meaning, as limited merely and only to the objects or occurrences which called it forth. The maxim: Ex uno disce omnia [‘from one learn all things’], is one which I should, in a qualified way, apply here with unhesitating confidence. The same Saviour, who has done so much for his church, and promised so much to it in ancient times, will not surely forsake it in later ones. . . . The gates of hell will not — cannot — prevail against the church.”

In his first volume Stuart deals with this question at great length (1: 475–84), noting that the fundamental principle Revelation so dramatically demonstrates is that recurring claim recorded by NT writers and drawn from the OT: “He has put all things in subjection under His feet” (1Co 15:27; cp. Mt 22:44; Mk 12:36; Lk 20:42–43; Ac 2:35; 1Co 15:25; Eph 1:22; Heb 1:13; 2:8; 10:13; cp. Ps 8:6). After all, John declares twice that Christ is “King of kings, and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16; cp. 17:14). Stuart well captures the essence of the matter (1:477): “If we should say now that all which respects the destruction of the Jewish persecuting power can no longer be a matter of any interest to us; what is this but to say, that from the past we can gather no lessons of importance in respect to the future; of that we can discover no ground of encouragement, by the fact that God has fulfilled one prediction, that he will fulfill another?”

So then, though Revelation is directed to first-century churches regarding their dire circumstances, we may draw out applications for our own use today (Paul Rainbow). What Lord Bolingbroke notes about history in general, we may apply to Revelation in particular: “History is philosophy teaching by example and also by warning.” And such is Revelation. Indeed, biblical texts have a concrete relevance for their own day even though they are “paradigmatic for God’s purpose” (Paul B. Decock) in later circumstances.

Thus, when we see what Christ promises for the first Christians we may rest assured he will do so for us in our difficult situations. We should understand that Christ absorbs the full brunt of Satan’s fury and emerges triumphant (5:6, 12) — for the good of his church. Though he experiences cruel death as a slain Lamb, he overcomes death to stand forevermore so that he may dwell among (1:13, 18, 20; 14:1; 19:9), defend (5:6; 15:2–4; 17:14), vindicate (6:16; 14:10), and bless (7:17; 19:7) his people. Thus, we should recognize that our temporal decisions have eternal implications and that faithfulness will be rewarded with a blessed future.

Third, if we were to take seriously such complaints, what would become of such OT books as Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, for instance? They focus specifically on Israel’s peculiar history and distinctive covenant involving the tabernacle system. As Stuart puts it: “there are some parts of the Scriptures, which, in one sense, have ceased to be specifically useful to the church, as now existing under the Christian dispensation. We might select, for example, the architectural directions for building the tabernacle, and the history of its construction in accordance with them, as contained in the book of Exodus.”

In dealing with levitical laws, Origen (hom. 7:1 in Num) asks: “What need is there to read these things in the churches?” Yet, they are a part of Scripture. How shall we understand Ps 18 which was written by David regarding his deliverance from the hand of Saul? And Isa 13–14 which prophesies judgment on OT Babylon? Shall we reduce these to “secondary importance” for us today? And if so, what shall we do with these and other such works? Deny their original meaning so that we might re-interpret them in a way more conducive to practical use today? Surely not. After all, Paul powerfully declares that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable” (2Ti 3:16) — even the directions for building the tabernacle.

Fourth, though Walvoord and other futurists make this charge, dispensationalism is guilty of the same problem but from the opposite end of the spectrum. For instance, John Phillips states that “the book of Revelation is occupied for the most part with events that have little bearing on our lives — most of the events will take place after the church has been removed from the scene.” This is because, as Robert Thomas puts it, futurism “views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history.” This is significant in that “the rapture of the church comes at a time just prior to the events about to be related” (Thomas), thus, “the prophecies will describe what will happen after the period of the churches has run its course.”

Walvoord notes that “the book, therefore, has a special relevance for the generation which will be living on earth at that time.” Koester complains about populist expositors such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, noting: “Historical interpreters reject such speculations, rightly pointing out that the book of Revelation, like the letters of Paul, was written to address the needs of the first-century readers, not to issue predictions that would be unintelligible until the end of time.”

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8 thoughts on “REVELATION’S PARAENETIC IRRELEVANCE?

  1. frankplessinger August 2, 2022 at 8:35 am

    The book of Revelation is full of application for living in our present day. I have never listened to a Sunday morning gospel message that did not carry me through some future event in my life that week or maybe two years later. When I read the scriptures, I always look for the application. Like the blood on the doorpost, it only has value if it is applied.

  2. howarddouglasking August 2, 2022 at 9:05 am

    The fact that they are offering this puerile argument shows that they can’t rebut preterism.

  3. Jasondfinch August 2, 2022 at 10:16 am

    Very well said brother.

    How is the Revelation commentary coming? Any release dates set yet?

  4. Jasondfinch August 2, 2022 at 10:18 am

    Very well said brother. How is the Revelation commentary going? Any release dates set yet?

  5. Jasondfinch August 2, 2022 at 10:25 am

    Very well said. As you pointed out, it is ironic how the futurist has no problem pointing out the occasions in the other letters of the NT but somehow when approaching the book of Revelation or the Olivet Discourse their Hermeneutic jumps ship in favor of their presuppositions.

    Hoping to get your Revelation commentary, any idea when this will be released?

  6. Kenneth Gentry August 2, 2022 at 10:39 am

    I should have an update on its progress in a couple of weeks.

  7. Kenneth Gentry August 2, 2022 at 10:39 am

    I should have an update on the commentary progress in a couple of weeks.

  8. George Crocker August 5, 2022 at 10:59 am

    Glad things are moving on in your commentary set, my brother. As you said “My Revelation commentary — The Divorce of Israel —is still making gradual progress towards completion.”. Just like postmil teaching…things are going forward but not as fast as modern day Christians would hope thus they see things going on around them in their culture as “signs the end is near” (missing what John said “it is near” in his time). Will continue to pray for you and the commentary coming in our time. lol. Blessings!

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