“Sent and signified them - Showed them by signs or emblems; so the Greek word properly means.”The brilliant Dr. Gill agrees with Mr. Wesley on this point (surely one of very few on which they did!!!) explaining the word as meaning:
“By various emblems, signs and visions, represented and set before John.” An Exposition of the New Testament [London, William Hill Collingridge, 1853] Vol. 2, P. 931).To the testimony of these two great Englishmen we add that of the American Presbyterian commentator, Albert Barnes:
“Eshmanen. He indicated it by signs and symbols. The word occurs in the New Testament only in Jn. Xii.33; xviii.32; xxi.19; Ac. Xi.28; xxv.27, and in the passage before us, in all which places it is rendered signify, signifying, or signified. It properly refers to some sign, signal or token by which anything is made known, and is a word most happily chosen to denote the manner in which the events referred to were to be communicated to John, for nearly the whole book is made up of signs and symbols.” (‘Notes on the Revelation’ [London, Blackie, 1951] Pp.35-6)
Waldron quotes one of MacArthur’s associates, Michael Vlach, as saying
“The presence of symbols does not mean that symbolical or allegorical interpretation in necessary.” (P. 76).As Waldron notes:
“One would have thought the presence of symbols would have exactly meant that some symbolical interpretation is necessary.” (P. 77)Conversely the absence of symbols precludes the possibility of symbolic interpretation! Poetical books require a poetical hermeneutic, historical books an historical and symbolical a symbolical. This is the contention of the non-Dispensational teachers. Different genres of literature require different hermeneutics. In practice we all recognise this. Let us take up the writings of John Bunyan. Do we approach the Pilgrim’s Progress the same way that we approach Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners? No! We recognise that the one is an allegory, the other a spiritual autobiography. One is to have an allegorical hermeneutic applied, the other an historical.
The idea of a single simple hermeneutic for every part of the Bible is actually so blatantly wrong that dispensationalists don’t believe it. We take as an example the letters to the seven Churches in Revelation 2.1-3.22. Dr. John MacArthur, like all historic non-dispensational protestant theologians, holds these to be letters to seven literal historic Churches then existing in Asia Minor. But dispensational writers such as C.I. Scofield find a fourfold application to these letters:
“1. Local, to the churches actually addressed; (2) admonitory, to all churches in all time as tests by which they may discern their true spiritual state in the sight of God; (3) Personal, in the exhortations to him “that hath an ear”, and in the promises “to him that overcometh; (4) prophetic, as disclosing seven phases of the spiritual history of the Church from, say, AD 96 to the end. It is incredible that in a prophecy covering the Church period there be no such fore view. These messages must contain that for view if it is in the book at all, for the church does not appear after 3.22.” (SRB p. 1331 Note 3)
This is certainly spiritualizing if there is such a thing, and even Dr. MacArthur does not escape its influence, for he says of Revelation 3.10,
“this verse promises that the church will be delivered from the tribulation, thus supporting a pretribulation rapture.” (‘Because the Time is Near’, [Moody, 2007] P. 92). For Dr. MacArthur then to fault those with whom he disagrees for employing spiritualizing interpretation therefore reminds us of an old saying about pots and kettles. What Revelation 3.10 says is: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” It is directed to the Church at Philadelphia, which Dr. John MacArthur tells us,
“The Christians in Philadelphia stood firm even after the region was overrun by the Muslims, until finally disappearing sometime during the fourteenth century.” (P. 89).Thus, even if we take the passage as applying to the Church at Philadelphia throughout its history, the stubborn fact remains that there is no church there, though there would have to be to support MacArthur’s interpretation unless he is in fact spiritualizing the passage, so that ‘Church at Philadelphia’ really means ‘faithful Christians alive at the time of the Great Tribulation’. Unless we come to this text with a pre-existing idea (like that to which Scofield confesses in the quotation above), we would suppose that the passage refers to a great empire-wide persecution in the first or second centuries. The phrase ‘the whole world’ is the same one found in Luke 2.1 and Acts 11.28, so unless you want to insist that Caesar Augustus wanted to tax the whole globe, and that the famine affected the whole globe, you have to admit that it means ‘the whole empire’ in those places, and therefore there is no reason to take it as meaning anything else here. The ’plain sense’ of Revelation 3.10 is that the church at Philadelphia would be kept from an imminent empire-wide persecution. This makes sense, so why must Scofield and MacArthur seek another sense? If you will pardon the pun, that does not make sense.
Mr. Andrew Fuller, in his commentary on Revelation, writes:
“Some have considered these churches as prophetically representing the different states of the Church at large under the Gospel dispensation. There is no doubt that analogies may be found between them, but it appears to me that the hypothesis is unfounded… Instead of considering the epistles to the seven churches either as prophetic or as descriptive of the church at large as it then was, I should rather consider them as descriptive of the state of those seven churches as they then were.” (Works of Andrew Fuller [Sprinkle, 1988] Vol. 3 P. 210). The Puritan Matthew Poole agrees:
“The epistles concerning matters of faith and manners are written plainly, not in mysterious expressions.” (Commentary on the Holy Bible [Banner of Truth, 1963] Vol. 3. P. 953). And Dr. Adam Clarke, the great Wesleyan commentator, is extremely strong in expressing his opinion of those who spiritualize the seven churches:
“I do not perceive any metaphorical or allegorical meaning in the epistles to these churches. I consider the churches as real; and that their spiritual state is here really and literally pointed out; and that they have no reference to the state of the church of Christ in all ages, as has been imagined, and that the notion… is unfounded, absurd and dangerous; and such expositions should not be entertained by any who wish to arrive at a sober and rational knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.” (Commentary on the Holy Bible [Thomas Tegg, 1837] P.2028)All three of these commentators, following their insistence on a literal interpretation, take the view that we do, that the ‘hour of temptation’ was some empire-wide persecution in the immediate future when the Revelation was written. Let us repeat, ANY OTHER VIEW IS ILLEGITIMATE SPIRITUALIZATION. Now we would not be as pungent as Dr. Clarke, who effectively declares Scofield and MacArthur to be extravagant and irrational in their interpretations, but we agree with the good doctor’s point. In fact let us add that we find Dr. Clarke an excellent commentator except when he is blinded by his own Arminianism. He certainly has a horror of spiritualizing that would make Dr. MacArthur look like Origen’s second cousin!
So long as passages like the above quotations from MacArthur and Scofield exist in Dispensationalist writings, it is most unwise for them to accuse non-dispensational writers of spiritualizing. What they mean really is that they think that the non-dispensational writers spiritualize in the wrong places. They are at liberty to think that, but be it known that we think that they spiritualize in the wrong places!!! How is the above quote from MacArthur on Revelation 3.10 the ‘plain sense’ or ‘literal meaning’ of the passage? Scofield admits that the reason he must find a prophecy of the ‘Church Age’ in these two chapters is that “these messages must contain that’. It is not exegetical, it is in fact the eisegetical imposition of an a priori upon the text. We are so bold in fact as to say that no-one can find a pre-tribulation Rapture in any of MacArthur’s proof texts given on page 92 of Because the Time is Near who does not come looking for evidence of one. But we have written at great length on that subject elsewhere and would refer readers interested in the deficiencies to that.
God willing, we shall continue this series next time.