The Plain Language Ploy

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.

Because it’s about the end of the world, right?

Why is the book of Revelation the last book in the Bible? This is a good question to ask at the outset of a study on this book, because a wrong or superstitious answer to this question creates an interpretive tautology: Revelation is at the end of the Bible because it’s about the end of the Bible.

As a point of fact, Revelation is at the end of the Bible for only one reason:

Revelation is located at the end of the Bible because of convention, not content.

The Bible is a collection of independent books written by multiple authors over time. Though it sets forth a consistent and outright crucial theme, it is not meant to be understood in a strict chronological sense in its present Protestant organization from Genesis to Revelation. To do so introduces superstition at best, idolatry at worst.

This is easy to see as a matter of history. For instance, the Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament is Torah, Prophets, Writings, which leads to a much different organization than Protestants are accustomed to, as well as a different number of books given that Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra/Nehemiah are not separated into multiple books.

Without getting sidetracked too far by the details, the Protestant (and Catholic & Orthodox, BTW) ordering of the OT is generally thought to loosely follow the ordering of the Septuagint*, a Greek translation of the OT, which is ordered differently than the Hebrew OT. This led to an OT order as follows: Torah (1st 5), History (Joshua – Esther), Wisdom Literature (Job through Song of Songs), Prophecy (Isaiah through Malachi). We simply think it’s normal because it’s what we’re used to.

The ordering of the New Testament, then, follows this arbitrary** classification:

Torah–Gospels

History–Acts

Wisdom Literature–Epistles

Prophecy–Revelation***

This is good stuff, because it releases us 21st-century Westerners from trying to read the Bible like a modern novel. Especially for those who have never read the Bible, don’t think you need to read it straight through from beginning to end. Genesis is a great place to start, but so is the Gospel of John. This is why Churches don’t have their new Christian classes focus on the book of Leviticus! The important thing is that ultimately you read and study all of the books the way they were meant to be read and studied.

Allrightthen…what does this mean for a study on the book of Revelation? Well, simply it means this: when we read the very first line, we don’t have to read it in the context of Revelation is about the end times because it’s at the end of the Bible. So, here’s the first line:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? Talk about Revelation always centers around time–end times, eschatology, pre-trib, mid-trib, post-trib, 1000 year reign, et al–but right out of the box we receive a time reference. Right out of the chute. From the word go. From the starting gun/line. From point A.

We’ll look more closely at that time reference soon.

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* While interesting, despite the details, and they are legion, the salient point here is that the NT in its present form is patterned after the OT in its present form, and the form was not always in its present state. This is a matter of convention; a doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration does not depend on the ordering of the OT and NT, nor does our doctrine of inspiration demand the ordering of the books. In fact, it has nothing to do with it at all, and claiming it does leads to Biblio-idolatry and a host of other ills, both in thought and in practice.

**arbitrary in the sense that it is not directly divinely inspired or following a chronological order. It is not arbitrary in the sense that it was thrown together with no thought or classification.

***In the last post, it was argued that Revelation is an epistle, which it is, but it is one with considerable prophetic (apocalyptic) content.

A study on the book of Revelation

Babylon, falling stars, beasts and dragons, serpents and chains, two witnesses, and all the rest. Let’s leave these aside for a moment along with the endless speculation they engender. First, a personal note….
To our friends in Texas, Arizona, and Canada:
Dode and I are between churches, and we thank all of you, including you in the province of Manitoba, who have been so good to us during this time. We intend to either join a new fellowship quickly or else start our own church soon. We are in a great place, hopeful and confident, faithful for the future, even though there is a time of testing ahead, and at rest in God’s providence, but not idle. I typically used Saturday morning to prepare for Sunday morning, and it seems good to me to continue to use that time profitably. So, I’ll get back on my horse and post Saturday morning’s ride here.
The personal note to y’all above is genuine and heartfelt, but in terms of studying the book of Revelation, take a close look at its elements: it is a personal letter that has some figurative language. This is the key to understanding Revelation: Revelation is an epistle with symbolic elements.
A common mistake with Revelation is to make the literal symbolic and the symbolic literal*.
Take my note above as an example. The figurative elements are the horse and Saturday morning’s ride. Even though I’m a Texan, none of my friends who read that understand that I am literally saddling up, even on my Great Dane. It’s symbolic language and we all know it. Likewise, when I say Dode and I will join a new church quickly or start our own church soon, no one believes this will occur in two thousand years. The same holds for the time of testing ahead. And, don’t miss this part; the recipients noted above, including Manitobans, know who they are, and they know the letter is intended for them.
Now, if someone reads this note two thousand years from now, what would they make of it? The answer is this: the same thing we ought to make of the book of Revelation.
“John,
To the seven churches in the province of Asia:” (Rev 1:4)
This is a clear epistolary greeting, signifying that this book is an epistle, a letter written to specific, historical churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
Here’s the principle: interpret the epistolary (letter) elements as epistle and interpret the symbolic (apocryphal/prophetic) elements as symbol.
Epistolary language must not be interpreted as symbol**, just as the recipients of the letter must not be. This seems such a simple thing, but let’s stay with it a bit, because this is where much of the confusion with this book occurs. Read my note above again with this in mind, and then compare the following verses:
Romans 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:1, 1Thes 1:1, 2 Thes 1:1, 1 Tim 1:2, 2 Tim 1:2, Titus 1:4, Philemon 1:1,  James 1:1, 1 Pet 1:1, 2 Pet 1:1, 2 John 1:1, 3 John 1:1, Jude 1
*clarification forthcoming on the words literal, literally, etc.
**except, of course, where we encounter symbol within the epistle: 2 Cor 12:7, 1 Pet 5:8, etc.