Many people assume that Revelation is a prophetic book in the sense of predicting, in rather explicit detail, “the way the world will end.” The most popular approach to Revelation, dispensationalism, both creates and reinforces this assumption.
A theological movement that began in the 19th century, dispensationalism holds that history is divided into various ages, or dispensations, each characterized by different ways in which God deals with humanity. With respect to eschatology, it includes the doctrine of the rapture, or the removal of true believers to heaven before the return of Christ, an idea unknown in Christian teaching before the 19th century.
Popular dispensationalism, disseminated by such best-selling sources as the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s writings (e.g., The Late, Great Planet Earth), and most recently the “Left Behind” series of books and movies by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, interprets Revelation as portraying, in literal and linear fashion, the course of historical events.
Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 666-675). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
The Churches of Christ have largely rejected Premillennialism, so much so that, in the 1970s, a controversy erupted as to the exclusion of Premillennialist Churches from Where the Saints Meet, a book listing all Church of Christ congregations! They were added back in but with a footnote warning possible visitors of their Premillennial views.
(A similar controversy arose only a couple of years ago regarding the exclusion of instrumental Churches of Christ from 21st Century Christian’s Churches of Christ in the United States. And again the excluded churches were returned to the next edition but with a footnote. I wondering whether heaven has a special room for footnoted Christians. Maybe the thermostat is set too high but not hell fire and brimstone high?)
And yet Premillennialism is closely tied to Dispensationalism, a doctrinal error that the mainstream Churches of Christ have adopted with great vigor because so many were converted by use of the Jule Miller Filmstrips — which presented a Dispensational view of biblical history based on the same Scofield Bible notes that created the Rapture theology of Left Behind and similar books. Both theories are creations of the 19th Century.
Now, obviously, there is some truth in Dispensational teaching. The error is in seeing each dispensation as the repeal of the previous covenant and the enactment of a new covenant, rather like nations repealing and adopting constitutions. The teaching makes the OT irrelevant — so much so that we in the Churches of Christ constantly refer to ourselves as “New Testament Christians,” I suppose in contrast to those Old Testament Christians down the road that we imagine to exist. It’s really almost delusional because no one on the planet thinks of themselves as Old Testament Christians.
Rather, many — all who’ve read Paul and the Sermon on the Mount carefully — teach that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants continue in effect and haven’t been repealed. They’ve been fulfilled, but they continue to be important. Thus, Paul teaches in Gal 3 and Rom 4 that we are saved by faith because of God’s covenant with Abraham. And Paul often cites the Torah as authority for such principles as no one should be convicted except on the testimony of two or three witnesses and we are still bound by “Love your neighbor.” We covered this in the series on covenant theology last year.
It’s astonishing how many Christians in Alabama want to insist that the OT has been “repealed” while also lauding Roy Moore for placing a marble monument to the Ten Commandments in the state judiciary building. You really can’t have it both ways. And how can we be “New Testament” Christians while treating Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” (you won’t find that one in the NT), insisting that we wear our “Sunday best” because the Torah requires us to give the best of the flock (it’s not as though we’re leaving our suits for the poor), and so on.
Some preachers have taken Dispensationalism to the extreme that they see Jesus as an “Old Testament prophet,” and hence they declare our Savior’s words as no more authoritative than the kosher laws of the Torah. Really. We get bent out of shape over a sermon on the Rapture while allowing our preachers to deny the words of Jesus Christ. Again, we are strange tribe.
But prophecy, in the biblical tradition, is not exclusively or even primarily about making pronouncements and predictions concerning the future. Rather, prophecy is speaking words of comfort and/or challenge, on behalf of God, to the people of God in their concrete historical situation. Old Testament prophets were called by God, sometimes in the context of a visionary experience (see Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1), to proclaim the message that God gave them, usually in the form of various oracles that were later written down, but also occasionally in visions, and often in poetic or symbolic language. Whatever the form, the message was one of judgment (on them or on their oppressors) or salvation—and usually both.
(Kindle Locations 679-684).
Since Revelation is a word of prophecy in the biblical tradition, we must take care to understand that its primary purpose is to give words of comfort and challenge to God’s people then and now, not to predict the future, and much less to do so with precise detail. Visions of the future, that is, are not an end in themselves but rather a means—both to warn and to comfort.
(Kindle Locations 694-696).
Now this observation is surely key to the interpretation of the Revelation. That is, if a proposed interpretation wouldn’t comfort or warn the churches of Asia Minor, it’s likely a mistaken interpretation.