Wednesday, September 19, 2007
'Because the Time is Near' by John MacArthur. Part 2.
We are glad that Dr. MacArthur takes the Seven Churches of the Revelation literally, as seven real Churches. Of course there are and will always be Churches like them as long as this present age continues. Thus these letters, like the epistles of Paul and Peter and James and Jude and John, are still relevant to us today. They are not a prophetic map concealed under the figure of letters to seven Churches!!!
We agree that illegitimate spiritualization has been the bane of the Church at least since Origen. The question is not whether or not it is, but what constitues it! For example, we find Dr. MacArthur's reference to the fact that the name Smyrna can mean myrrh, "Like myrrh, produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the Church at Smyrna, crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma of faithfulness to God" (P. 57). This is quite legitimate, and we have no problem with it, but it is certainly a form of spiritualizing the text!
In his exposition of the letter to the Church at Philadelphia, however, we have a passage that seems to be a left-over relic from a non-literal dispensational interpretation (eisegesis) of the text. We give it in full:
"Because the believers in Philadelphia had successfully passed so many tests, Jesus promised to spare them from the ultimate test. The sweeping nature of that promise extends far beyond the Philadelphia congregation to encompass all faithful churches throughout history. This verse promises that the Church will be delivered from the tribulation, thus supporting a pretribulation rapture" (P. 92).
Now, we would ask, was the Church of Philadelphia raptured? Certainly not! Where in the text is this idea that theis promise refers to some future great tribulation? No-where! If this text supports the doctrine of the pre-tribulational rapture, then that doctrine is, like the earth, hung on nothing. This is illegitimate spiritualization with a vengeance! As we have said, it seems to us a relic of a tradition Dr. MacArthur is in the process of discarding. He goes on:
"The rapture is the subject of three passages in the New Testament (John 14.1-4; 1 Corinthians 15.51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17), none of which speak of judgement but rather of the church being taken up to heaven. There are three views of the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation: that it comes at the end of the tribulation (posttribulationism), in the middle of the tribulation (midtribulationism), and the view that seems to be supported by this text, that the rapture takes place before the tribulation (pretribulationism)" (P. 93).
This text is a very weak support indeed for the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture. MacArthur says that "the test is still for the future." We would ask him why? The fact that it was still future when Revelation was written does not mean that it is still future today. History tells us there were several major persecutions in the Roman empire up to the fourth century. MacArthur says that it will be worldwide in scope, but this does not necessarily follow. There are two words in Scripture translated 'world' in our Bibles. The first and more common is Kosmos (as in John 3.16). The second is 'Oikoumene'. This second word often has the meaning of the known world, and in two places it is used, as it is here, with 'Holos' (whole) to refer to the whole Roman Empire. In Luke 2.1 we read that "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." The same word, 'Oikoumene' is used in this text as is used in Revelation 3.10. In Acts 11.28 we read of a famine that was to affect 'the whole world'. Once again the phrase here is best understood as referring to the Roman Empire. Indeed, eventually, in post-Biblical times oikomene became a technical term FOR the Roman Empire, thus the patriarch of Constantinople is called the Ecumenical Patriarch today because he is the patriarch of the imperial city.
Just as it meant the whole Roman Empire in Luke 2 and Acts 11, the phrase 'whole world' could hold the same meaning here, and indeed that is the most likely understanding of the text in its context as referring to a local first century Church in the Roman Empire.
So the natural reading of this text is that it refers to a local Church in Philadelphia that would be, by the grace of God, kept from the great persecutions in the Roman Empire. It does NOT refer to their being kept from an event that was still in the far future when Revelation was written, an event that would not affect them because, as Dr. MacArthur correctly tells us, the Church of Philadelphia ceased to exist in the fourteenth century! To refer this to the rapture is forced and unnecessary. This being the case, Dr. MacArthur's key passage to support a pre-tribulational rapture in fact does nothing of the sort!
God willing, next time we shall continue with this review.