Friday, December 23, 2005

Eschatology & Literal Interpretation

Well, I didn’t think I would I would get to post this on the day that I thought I would. However, late is better than never( I have been very busy lately with trips out of town, which I don’t necessarily like, since they keep me from my wife and children. However, the Lord has saw fit to give me a long weekend through Monday and for that I am grateful. I have had several posts on my mind and hopefully I will get to them today. The first is the one I mentioned in our discussions surrounding my previous post on eschatology.

I have been challenged by my friends in regards to literal interpretation. I confess there is literal interpretation, but that is in regards to the particular literature we are dealing with. Obviously we interpret different literature in light of the kind of literature it is. For instance, we don’t interpret historical narrative in the same sense we interpret poetry and we don’t interpret apocalyptic literature as we do historic narrative. The Bible is full of different kinds of literature. All have a literal interpretation. In other words, the meaning must be literal for it to have meaning. However, the methods in writing may be different, but with the same result.

In order to demonstrate this I am going to use some comments from a well known and highly respected Bible Teacher and pastor, which I personally love and admire. I am speaking of Dr. John MacArthur. Dr. MacArthur has been used in my life for many years now and I am a supporter of his ministry. God has used him to help me understand some things much clearer and in a couple of instances I have seen how he has made things less clear. Since he is a man, he is prone to error, just as I am. With that said, I want anyone who reads this to understand that I am not attacking Dr. MacArthur. I love and respect the man. However, I am going to attack the presuppositions and statements that are made, which I will quote and make my point about literal interpretation.

I finished up my study in Daniel, and saw nothing in the text that I do not believe has been fulfilled in the time of the Messiah until 70 AD and is being fulfilled in the growing of the kingdom of God represented by the stone “cut out without hands” that grew into a great mountain which filled the earth from Daniel 2. Since my mind won’t allow me to totally leave the subject, since our other elder is coming up on Matthew 24 in a few short weeks, I am leaning toward going through Revelation. I decided to do some study in the book and see how Daniel and Matthew 24 fit in with Revelation. I am convinced that Daniel and Matthew 24 are specifically speaking to the time of Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem that followed. I don’t think the dispensational argument can consistently go through the text, unless it has an underlying presupposition that says these things must be future.

With that in mind I went to Dr. MacArthur’s commentary on Matthew (Vol. 3: 24-28). I will be quoting from there and will give you the page numbers if you care to reference it. One of the first things that Dr. MacArthur says is on page 2.

“The teaching of the Olivet discourse is much debated and frequently misunderstood, largely because it is viewed through the lens of a particular theological system or interpretive scheme that makes the message appear complex and enigmatic. But the disciples were not learned men, and Jesus’ purpose was to give them clarity and encouragement, not complexity and anxiety. The intricate interpretations that are sometimes proposed for this passage would have left the disciples utterly dumbfounded. It is preferable to take Jesus’ words as simply and as strait forwardly as possible.”

Now, I will first point out that when anyone says something remotely like, “frequently misunderstood, largely because it is viewed through the lens of a particular theological system or interpretive scheme”, that red flags go up for me. The reason being, is that most believers who are reformed face the same kind of talk when we try explaining the doctrines of grace with our friends who do not believe them. They see us interpreting inside “our system”. I don’t have a problem with interpretations inside the system. That’s what makes it a system. That’s where we can see whether or not we are consistent. So when someone says such a thing, I am going to see if he interprets according to his system and MacArthur does just that. Matthew 24 is interpreted in light of a dispensational view. By the way, I am told that he is rethinking some of his dispensational views. I hope this is true.

Dr. MacArthur then takes the next few pages to discuss how the Jews expected their Messiah. He quotes from various sources including the Old Testament, the Mishna, and various other writings of the Jews.

Then on page 7 under the header, “Prophetic discussions with Jesus” he says the following,

“In fairness to the disciples, the Old Testament prophets also saw the Messiah’s coming and establishing His kingdom as a single event. The church age was a mystery to them, a mystery, as Paul explained, “which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested. (Rom. 16:25-26).”

Ok, here is Dr. MacArthur looking through his own lens. Instead of seeing the gospel as he should as is also relevant to Ephesians 1, Dr. MacArthur speaks of the church as the mystery. That is clearly a dispensational lens. It is not a literal interpretation in regards to Romans 16, and since it is not correct it should not be imported into an interpretation of Matthew 24. Also, the kingdom was established. This is clearly tied to the "last days" in which is picture the coming of Messiah and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The New Testament is filled with references to the kingdom already being established and the fact that we are in it now.

MacArthur then says on page 9 that he affirms that Jesus was talking about the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem in chapter 23. However, the questions from the disciples stem from the statements by Jesus in 23. MacArthur rejects audience relevance of what Jesus is saying and instead, like most dispensationalists, makes the passage speak to thousands of years into the future rather than the very plain understanding that Jesus was communicating, namely for that generation (24:34). To use Dr. MacArthur’s own words, he makes the text complex and enigmatic, not clear and encouraging.

Dr. MacArthur then takes the approach that everything in Matthew 24 is for sometime in the future, taking an approach that does not see Daniel’s 70 weeks as complete, but looking for some future Great Tribulation for physical Jews, of which I really question if that line is not completely mixed up. The reason for my thinking that is because no one can prove they are a physical descendant of Abraham: no one. All records were destroyed in the Temple during its destruction, this is one of the greatest reasons for believing Christ is who He said He was for Matthew and Luke record His genealogy for us so that we will know. Many speak of a rebuilt temple and the performing of sacrifices. The biggest question I have is who are the Levites? No one can prove it. No one is able to honestly come forward and prove they are from the tribe of Levi. What purpose would a new physical temple serve? After all, in the New Testament, believers are spoken of as the temple of the Holy Spirit and the church is also spoken of as a holy nation.

This helps us understand where Dr. MacArthur comes from. Before I give the particular example for our understanding of literal interpretation, I will quote MacArthur’s own words in regards to why he is a premillenialist.

“I believe the prophetic passages of Scripture should be handled like any other portion of God’s Word. The plain meaning of a text is the preferred interpretation. There’s no reason to spiritualize or devise allegorical interpretations of Scripture if the literal sense makes good sense. Only if the context of a passage gives some compelling reason to assume the language is symbolic should we look for figurative meaning. Where the plain sense of Scripture makes good sense, there is no reason to seek any other sense. (The Second Coming, John F. MacArthur, pgs 22-23)”

Now in the main I agree. We should not look for different meanings if the passage is clear. However, MacArthur and others have used the same thing that he says he doesn’t use in passages like Daniel 9:24-27. Therefore, he can have some future week, but in failing to understand the plain interpretation, he renders Christ’s work outside of the 70 weeks, not within them and then promises a holocaust that will make WWII pale in comparison for physical Jews as well as the whole world. He will also not take into account in Matthew 24 the apocalyptic language that will be used in some of the verses.

Particularly we will look at verse 29. From my perspective and I think from the perspective of Christ and His disciples, Jesus was referencing His coming judgment upon Israel, so when tribulation is spoken of there it is the same tribulation spoken of by Daniel in 12:1. Jesus fulfilled those things that the prophets said about Him. Notice the verse we are looking at, including verse 30:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

MacArthur takes this “literally”. In other words he believes that Jesus is saying that there will be great cosmic “stuff” happening. Again, he takes into his commenting on the passage “literal” interpretations of numbers from Revelation such as the 144,000. However, I believe that since he has missed the main point as I stated in the first part of the post, his interpretation will follow and be further from the truth rather than closer to it. However, we recognize that all of the Word of God comes from God, yet written by men. If so, would it not do us good to see how God used the same language in the past? When Peter uses similar language in 2 Peter 3:10-14 is he implying the end of the physical world, or is he speaking about the destroying of a world, namely the world of the nation of Israel? Let me demonstrate why I think we should not see this passage as literal, but having a literal meaning.

In the book of Isaiah, chapter 34, we find the prophet prophesying God's judgment upon Idumea and the nations of the world in the days of Assyria and Babylon.

1 Come near, you nations, to hear; And heed, you people! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, The world and all things that come forth from it.
2 For the indignation of the LORD is against all nations, And His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter.
3 Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood.
4 All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree.
5 "For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; Indeed it shall come down on Edom, And on the people of My curse, for judgment.
6 The sword of the LORD is filled with blood, It is made overflowing with fatness, With the blood of lambs and goats, With the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, And a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
7 The wild oxen shall come down with them, And the young bulls with the mighty bulls; Their land shall be soaked with blood, And their dust saturated with fatness."
8 For it is the day of the LORD'S vengeance, The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
9 Its streams shall be turned into pitch, And its dust into brimstone; Its land shall become burning pitch.
10 It shall not be quenched night or day; Its smoke shall ascend forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; No one shall pass through it forever and ever.

Now notice the language used by the prophet. Did the mountains actually melt with blood (vs. 3)? Did the host of heaven dissolve (vs. 4)? Were the heavens rolled up like a scroll (vs. 4)? And their host fall down (vs. 4)? Was a literal sword bathed in blood in heaven (vs. 5)? When verses 9-10 reference burning pitch and the fire not quenched night or day and the smoke rising up forever, was that meant literally? Did judgment take place? Yes it did. God did judge the people, but the language of the prophet is apocalyptic. I cannot read this as a historical narrative except that there was a real judgment of God. Otherwise, I would have to conclude that God brought an end to the physical realm and somehow restored it all including the people He didn’t judge, right? The prophet is simply using the picture of host of heaven and stars to refer to those who ruled over the people and their way of governing. The same seems to be true concerning the words of the Lord in Matthew 24. There was a total undoing of the governing of Israel to never be established again. Therefore, to them it would become a new world. You see this is apocalyptic language and both Jesus and John use it. They are familiar with how the Old Testament prophets spoke and they use the very same type of language. This is one of many examples that I could show that everyone, including those who say they take the texts literal, do in fact, on occasion not take things literally. However, even when they don’t, they usually have a literal meaning that they derive from the symbolism or the language. I do believe it also applies to numbers that are used in the Revelation as well. Though I think some numbers are more clearly to be taken at face value rather than at an exact, such as the number of the beast, for we are told that the number is there to give wisdom and that number is not three sixes, but rather is six hundred and sixty-six.

Also, let me point out the apocalyptic language of verse 30 of Matthew 24. You see that Jesus employees the same kind of language again in 26: 64,

Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."

Interestingly enough Matthew, Mark, and Luke give the account of the Olivet Discourse. However John is the only gospel writer who does not include it in his gospel, but it appears that Revelation is his commentary on the Olivet Discourse. We will note that John also uses the same phraseology in chapter one of Revelation and verse 7.

Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen.

Notice that John speaks of Christ coming in the clouds and specifically references those who pierced him seeing this. This is obviously not for some people thousands of years in the future, but is in reference to the Lord’s own words of the generation that He spoke to. Thus John began the Revelation with,

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants----things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.

He also references the fact that the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Tribes is a better rendering than the AV gives. However, we will note that the Greek word here for earth is the same word used for “land”. This would give us a better understanding of the purpose of the book if we understand that it is concerning the judgment of the tribes in the land and that land is the area of Jerusalem.

Many, like Dr. MacArthur argue that when this “coming” happens that is referenced in Matthew 24 and that in Revelation 1 that what is referenced is a literal seeing with the eyes Jesus Christ in the clouds coming in judgment. Now that may or may not be. We are told by the angels in Acts 1:11 that Jesus would return in like manner. However, to better help understand this apocalyptic language; let’s look at how it was used in the Old Testament. After all there we find a basis for our hermeneutic in regards to the language.

God is referenced in the Old Testament as being surrounded by clouds as a picture of His holiness and righteous judgment (Gen. 15:17; Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19-20; 19:9, 16-19; Deut. 4:11; Job 22:14; Psa. 18:8ff.; 97:2; 104:3; Isa. 19: 1; Eze. 32:7-8). He is also poetically portrayed as coming in the clouds (Psa. 18:7-15; 104:3; Isa.19:1; Joel 2:1, 2; Nab. l:2ff.; Zeph. 1:14, 15).

Isaiah 19:1 is one of the passages that probably best illustrates the point. There we read,

The burden of Egypt. Behold, the LORD rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it.

Now, did Egypt actually see God riding on a cloud? No. Did God judge Egypt? Yes. Again, the apocalyptic language helps us identify a literal meaning from the specific imagery used. This is part of the problem I see when someone says that something should be literally interpreted.

I still hold that the thousand years spoken of in chapter 20 of Revelation does not have to be taken literally in order to be understood. For if I am correct in assuming the early date of Revelation and that in fact speaks to God’s judgment upon Jerusalem, then it would make perfect sense to understand the thousand years to follow that time. With that in mind, I am also going to post some reasons regarding internal evidence for the early writing of Revelation. I am eager to hear from some who hold to a late date writing for Revelation (90-96 AD) and any internal evidence you might have. If you say it is because the church has always held to this then that is not internal evidence. That is not sola scriptura.

No comments: