The plain language ploy occurs when an interpreter treats plain language as if it were not clear, as if the author really meant something else. Always beware this type of Biblical interpretation; it is frequently wrong, and often deceptive. If the author meant to say something else, he would have written something else.
To be fair, a good example of this ploy is common in my own Reformed Theology. After all, if the New Testament writer in plain language says that God wants all men to be saved, we better have a doctrine that says God wants all men to be saved. To not do so–to say that the author really meant something else–is to commit the plain language ploy.*
But, we are looking at the book of Revelation currently, and temptation for the PLP is strong with this book. The first verse establishes a time frame reference, in very plain language: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.
Any futurist interpretation of this book requires the PLP from the very first verse, but it’s not limited to the first verse. It requires a staggering amount of PLP; consider just how many time references are in the book:
1:3 “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.”
2:16 “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
3:11 “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.”
22:6 “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 servant the things that must soon take place.”
22:7 “Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”
22:10 “Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near.”
22:12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
22:20 “He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus.”
At this point, I’d invite those who believe in a futurist interpretation of Revelation to stop thinking about the meaning of Revelation and first consider the following:
–Imagine you have never heard of the rapture, never seen a Left behind movie, never attended a church camp where they scared you with a Revelation movie. Imagine you have never been exposed to any Christian Theology whatsoever: no Trinity, no resurrection, no Scripture, no “Now but not yet” element of prophecy, zilch, nada, zero. If you were to come across the book of Revelation without any of this background knowledge, what would you conclude about the time references?
I’m a fairly presumptuous person, so let me answer: if someone with no background knowledge to influence them were to read this text, they would conclude it’s a letter written to seven Asian churches whose Savior is coming soon. Soon as in soon, because, without a pre-existing eschatological doctrine to conform to, there would be no inclination toward the PLP. The text would simply say what it says.
In fact, this is the part of the book a person with no background knowledge would understand. She would not understand the dragons, the beasts, the chains, etc. In other words, a person with no background knowledge would understand the plain language, as should we. So, here’s the point: if we are going to take this plain language figuratively, we’d better have a rock solid reason to.
We don’t. As you search around for rationale to support a futurist interpretation, and I encourage you to do so, keep these questions in mind: if Christ, John, and the angel had really not meant soon, quickly, near, at hand, etc., why didn’t they just say so? Why is the time reference repeated at least nine times if it really wasn’t intended? How does it make sense if the time references don’t apply to the seven historical churches in Asia?
However, true enough, we cannot isolate Scripture this way, so perhaps the rest of Scripture–the analogy of faith–requires us to understand these words differently than how they clearly read. Maybe it really does mean soon, but for the last generation–the generation that will be alive at the second coming. Next week we’ll look at the parousia-delay doctrine, the time frame references in the rest of the NT, and what is possibly the greatest fulfilled prophecy in the Bible: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
*another way this occurs is the well, what the Greek or Hebrew really says is tactic. While there is great value in understanding the original languages, they can also be sources of deceit and misinformation, and must be treated with great care. At any rate, they should never be employed to the extent that people begin to doubt the reliability of translations in their native tongue. Studying with multiple native tongue translations–with a least one word-for-word and one dynamic equivalence translation–is generally good enough for those readers who do not read Greek or Hebrew (or Aramaic) to pick up most nuances of the original languages.