Mud on the Wall: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (LXXXIX)

August 26, 2010

It is impossible to estimate how much has been written on the use of previous Scripture (usually, but by no means exclusively, the Old Testament) in the Book of Revelation.  Though there has been much less done on the doctrine of Scripture in the Apocalypse, it should be quite obvious that the two are closely related, even if that relationship seems to be hardly ever mentioned.

If this relationship is not immediately obvious to you, the reader, think about it this way: far and away the most prevalent aspect of bibliology (the doctrine of Scripture) in Revelation is the echoing of earlier biblical passages.  As a result, apart from the passages that speak of 1) the sealing or unsealing of Divine revelation (see 10:4; 22:10); 2) the curses uttered for tampering with the final form of the Book of Revelation (22:18-19); and 3) the two beatitudes which focus on the urgent need to heed practically the message of the book (1:3; 22:7), far and away the most important part of the final stanza of the Bible in regard to its teaching about Scripture has to do with the usage and fulfillment of previous biblical prophecy and other imagery.

Unfortunately, the interpretive backdrop of the multitudinous attempts to think through the use of previous Scripture in the Apocalypse has been a polarized one.  On the one hand, there are many who hold that the meaning of earlier biblical passages/prophecies is directly transferred from the original setting and is, thus, to be taken fairly literally.  On the other hand, many others are equally convinced that the passages used in Revelation have been transformed in their fulfillment there and, thus, are to be spiritualized in their interpretation.

Of course, in most cases, at least, these two polar positions were not arrived at by a careful inductive study of all the uses of earlier Scripture in Revelation.  They were simply adapted from the two primary longstanding evangelical approaches to interpreting biblical prophecy, one of which goes all the way back to the Church Fathers and the other to the influence of Augustine.

While I should make it clear at this point that I definitely lean toward the more literal pole here, this is not the time to go through a lengthy evaluation of those two historic approaches.  However, it certainly is a prime opportunity to state that there is another alternative that I think is very worthy of your consideration: simply put, prophecies in Revelation are completed, however God sees fit to do that. What I mean is that, without whatever allusion is found in the Apocalypse, every previous unfulfilled or partially-fulfilled prophecy or type is incomplete.  That is where the focus needs to be, not so much the pursuit of the hermeneutical category in which every “fulfillment” falls.

Think about it: for a good—and, I think, completely valid—comparison—when we look at other O.T. passages/prophecies “fulfilled” in Jesus’ first coming, what we find is far from stereotypical.  For example, although the fulfillment of the prophecies of the place of Jesus’ birth (see Micah 5:2), when he would be die (the first 69 “weeks” of Dan. 9:24ff.), and how He would die (Ps. 22 and Isa. 53) are quite literal, the uses of Hosea 11:1 for Joseph taking his family to Egypt until Herod the Great died, and of Jeremiah 31:15 for the killing of the boy babies under two years old in Bethlehem, are anything but (literal).

Thus, in analyzing how “prophecies” related to Jesus’ second coming are fulfilled in Revelation, is there any compelling reason why we should expect anything different than what I just briefly overviewed?  Not that I am aware of.

Again, think about it: to use the two “preaching texts” of the book (i.e., Dan. 7:13 and Zech. 12:10, which are cited up-front in Rev. 1:7) as test cases, the reader quickly sees that it is not so much whether the meaning in the original contexts are transferred or transformed as that they are completed.  See if you agree.

In the case of the Daniel 7 passage, right out of the gate in the Apocalypse, the Son of Man wording is cast in a scene more reminiscent of the Mount of Transfiguration than anything else.  Next, the “fulfillment” of Dan. 7:13 moves to the heavenly throne room in chapters 4-5, but Jesus is there portrayed in chapter 5 as the lion of Judah and the lamb who was lain, making Him worthy to open the scroll.  It is only in 14:14 where one like the Son of Man is seen seated on a cloud, a la Dan. 7:13.

Now, was the original prophecy “spiritualized?”  No.  It was just added to—completed.

Moving to Zechariah 12:10, from that context, the reader is led to expect that there will be a mass repenting and pouring out of the Spirit on Jewish people in Jerusalem.  However, Revelation 1:7 expands that to “all the families of the earth” (HCSB).  Then, when it happens in the flow of the Apocalypse, in 11:13, it is both a huge throng of Jews and Gentiles in Jerusalem who fear God and give glory to Him—what 14:6-7 defines as the response asked for by “the eternal gospel.”

Again, was the prophecy from Zechariah 12 “spiritualized?”  Not at all.  It was expanded and, thus, completed.

But, these fulfillments are anything but handling Scripture fast and loose.  They evidence a tremendous reverence for the previously-given prophecies and typological prefigurements of Scripture.  In that sense, nothing is added (see Rev. 22:18-19) except the Lord’s determined fulfillment, without which all the earlier prophetic material in the Bible would not only be incomplete, but, because, when it was given, it expected fulfillment, it would have, thus, been proven either lacking in inspiration or, even worse, would have proven a stain on the perfect truthfulness of the God from which it ultimately derived.


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