‘We must take Revelation literally!’ they say. ‘Except when I don’t do so!’

I have written several papers on how the church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries reported that they experienced the gift of prophecy. Only in the early 3rd century did Origen observe that “since [the time of Christ and the apostles] these signs have diminished, although there are still traces of His presence in a few who have had their souls purified by the Gospel, and their actions regulated by its influence.” [Origen Against Celsus 7.8 (ANF 4.614)]. For him, prophecy was a supernatural message directly from God, not preaching or exhortation in general.

The dispensationalist and Reformed Christians typically state that the gift of prophecy by definition must have ended with the death of the last apostle or the close of the NT canon, that is, around the year AD 100. This despite the many, widespread reports of Christian prophecy in the 2nd century.

I was looking at Revelation 11, and it hit me that a dispensationalist might have serious difficulty with the description of the two end-time witnesses. They interpret this passage as eschatological, and yet it says that people prophesy centuries after the close of the canon! And also perform miracles, which according to some, are not possible after AD 100.

I quote the passage at length, so show how clear is the language of “prophet”, “prophesy”:

3 And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth. 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. 6 They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying… 10 and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth, etc. [Revelation 11:3-6, 10 ESV, emphasis added. The words for prophet and prophesy are the normal Greek terms for this activity].

How can someone reconcile literal post-apostolic prophesying with the idea that there can be no post-apostolic prophets?

Some dispensationalists fall back on the interpretation that, if this is the 70th week of Daniel, then it is possible for God to give new prophetic revelation. I find this explanation to be an excellent example of “special pleading“, that is, someone claims an exception to the rule for a reason that is not generally obvious. Besides, how can it be possible that, one and the same time, no further revelation is needed, nor is it possible and at the same time that further revelation is possible and is in fact needed. Why don’t the prophets just preach the Bible, if it need not, cannot, be complemented with further words from God?

Some take the two prophets to be symbolic, but that spoils the rule that “all of Revelation is literal!” Others redefine the word prophet, to make it mean “preach”, this, even though every single reference to the gift of prophecy in the New Testament refers to supernatural revelation. I will quote at length a dispensationalist interpretation of Revelation 11 to show how one can go to any lengths to deny the obvious:

It will be their responsibility to prophesy. Prophecy in the New Testament does not necessarily refer to predicting the future. Its primary meaning is “to speak forth,” “to proclaim,” or “to preach.” The two witnesses will proclaim to the world that the disasters occurring during the last half of the Tribulation are the judgments of God. They will warn that God’s final outpouring of judgment and eternal hell will follow. At the same time, they will preach the gospel, calling people to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The period of their ministry is twelve hundred and sixty days, the last three and one-half years of the Tribulation, when Antichrist’s forces oppress the city of Jerusalem (v. 2), and many Jews are sheltered in the wilderness (12:6). The fact that they are actual preachers and not symbols of institutions or movements is indicated by the description of their clothing and behavior which follows.

Watch out for this exegesis, which says:

  1. Prophets are “really” preachers, not prophets.
  2. Thus these prophets “preach” but do not prophesy. (That is, even though they are specifically designated as prophets.)

May I reiterate, that nowhere in the New Testament is the gift of prophecy defined as preaching. This is a viewpoint that I have tried to disprove elsewhere.

If the Bible says these two are prophets, then they are prophets. They witness and they preach, to be sure – just like the Old Testament prophets did – but their message goes well beyond repeating known truths: they speak a message that came uniquely to them through divine revelation as prophecy. And one cannot claim to take Revelation purely “literally” – which in itself raises many problems – and then go ahead and break that rule when it is inconvenient.

My point: If the Bible indicates even just one example of someone prophesying after the close of the canon, then we cannot assert that no prophecy occurs after AD 100. Revelation 11 supplies two examples.

“‘We must take Revelation literally!’ they say. ‘Except when I don’t do so!!'” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, San José, Costa Rica

11 thoughts on “‘We must take Revelation literally!’ they say. ‘Except when I don’t do so!’

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  1. I have a question about pastors who are translating “θηρίον” as “bacteria” in Revelation 6:8. I’ve looked the word up in my Bauer’s lexicon but historical usage would not be of much help here. Your Greek is undoubtedly better than my own. Do you see any valid reason to translate “θηρίον” as “bacteria”, or are pastors seeing what they want to see especially in light of CoVid-19? I personally don’t see any valid reasons for the translation, but I’d feel more comfortable if I wasn’t the only one saying that.

    1. Oh, goodness, sister, this was is new to me, but I googled it and it’s all over the place! No, therion in a literal senses means a wild beast, such as a bear or lion.

      Do you mind if I share your question in a short post? Blessings, Gary

  2. I have heard the argument about television. It’s interesting that those who believe the rapture is imminent also believe that these things couldn’t happen without the technology of the past 80 years or so!

  3. Dispensationalists are not monolithic and I am not sure that quoting one really supports the point at hand. I looked at three that have written commentaries on Revelation (Constable, Walvoord, Thomas). All three see these as prophets and Thomas explicitly notes that the prophets were involved in “foretelling events.” Constable, states somewhat ambiguously, “They will “prophesy,” namely, communicate messages from God.” But none of the three deny that these are prophets or explicitly deny that they might have a foretelling function. (Two other dispensational interpreters did not really address the issue at hand [Patterson, Ryrie].)

    The other point to consider is that all of these understand the two prophets to be in Daniel’s Seventieth Week (aka the Tribulation) so one could hold to a cessationist position for the church age with the prophetic function returning during the Tribulation.

    1. Hi Charles, and thanks.

      I have modified my article to take into account your comments, which were helpful.

      To respond: I did not say that a dispensationalists COULD not interpret the prophets to be “foretelling events”, and I’m glad to see that Thomas infers that they are prophesying. What I am saying is that Thomas, who is on record as taking a strict cessationist viewpoint, can only with great difficulty take that interpretation of Rev 11. Says Thomas, “22:18-19 announces the termination of NT prophecy” (https://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj8a.pdf) with the composition of the book of Revelation. Yet he states in his commentary that time of the two witnesses is eschatological, that is, long after the composition of Revelation: “An assignment of the period to a future defilement and domination of Jerusalem and the rebuilt temple is more satisfactory.” The two witnesses are two individuals, and “πρoϕητεύσoυσιν (prophēteusousin, ‘they will prophesy’) of necessity includes the foretelling of the future.” In this latter he is probably correct, but Thomas does not say, that I can see, how he resolves his contradiction.

      My point is that they contradict themselves, not that they misinterpret Rev 11. And that “special pleading” is a danger for all exegetes, of all stripes.

      Thanks for sharing! Gary

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