‘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. For example, 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, as for the orthodox fathers of his day, 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 [from προφητεύω/propheteuo] 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 [from προφητεία/propheteia]… 10 and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets [from προφήτης/prophetes] had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth, etc. [Revelation 11:3-6, 10 ESV, emphasis added].

The words are the normal Greek terms for this prophetic activity: the same one used for the prophet [from προφήτης/prophetes] Isaiah in Matthew 1:22; the gift of prophesying [from προφητεύω/propheteuo] in Acts 21:9 and many other texts; supernatural prophecy [from προφητεία/propheteia] in 1 Tim 4:14.

It should be added that there are no textual variants or confusions with the key Greek terms in this text. That is, one cannot claim that, “But the Greek says something different!” The only variant of interest is that in v. 10, a single manuscript, p47, from the third century, has “twelve prophets”, obviously a simple transcription error; and Sinaiticus and 2344 have a different word order in v. 10, which does not change the meaning: ουτοι οι προφηται οι δυο, “these two prophets.”

The dispensationalist, again, insists on the “literal” hermeneutics of the entire Bible, and of Revelation in particular (I think there are problems with this “literal” term, also the way in which it is applied: by maintaining that the literal interpretation is the only correct one, they have to add dozens of qualifications and exceptions).

For us the puzzle remains: how can someone reconcile “literal” post-apostolic prophesying by two men with the idea that there can be no post-apostolic prophets?

Walvoord’s Commentary on Revelation (updated in 2011) says that Revelation 11 is to be read “literally”, adding that “It seems far preferable to regard these two witnesses as two prophets who will be raised up from among those who turn to Christ in the time following the rapture.” Well, in his reading – which I think is a consistent one, given his hermeneutic – prophets are prophets: they prophesy, and they do so after the apostolic age. But this is the very same author who said that, today, “none possess the gift of prophecy. With the completed New Testament, it is evident that there is no further need for additional revelation. It is the purpose of God to reveal Himself through the Word, rather than beyond the Word. There is no more possibility of anyone possessing the prophetic gift in the present dispensation than there is of anyone writing further inspired books to be added to the canon.” (from The Holy Spirit: a comprehensive study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit). I would add that, this common notion, that all prophecy would have to become part of canonical Scripture is hardly what one would expect from the New Testament (Did all of Agabus’s prophecies get collected and published in a Bible book? All of the oracles of Philip’s four daughters, Acts 21:9? All of the Corinthians’ prophecies?). Nor do I know how he reconciled his contradictory statements: NO, there are no prophets after 100; but YES, there are two in the end-times tribulation.

Other 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, must not be complemented with further words from God?

Some take the two prophets to be symbolic, but that surely would be to bend 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, since these two preach, they are preachers, not prophets! Even though they are called prophets! The logical error here must be obvious: if a prophet also does another task, then he is not a prophet but is defined by this second task. Using the very same false reasoning, one could say that the word apostle “really” means “fisherman” – or leather worker, or tax collector. Moreover, MacArthur claims – without warrant – that he had already proven in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that “prophesying” is really “proclaiming, preaching.” But when he does that in 1 Corinthians, once again, he’s not interpreting Scripture “literally.” (I have studied his Corinthians commentary as well and cannot concede that he proved anything of the sort). 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.

Despite the problems with Walvoord’s exegesis of Revelation 11, he does at least follow his hermeneutic to its logical end in a way that MacArthur does not.

No: If the Bible says these two are prophets, and someone wants to say they are literally two individuals, then prophets is what they are. They witness and they preach, to be sure – just like the Old Testament prophets did – but their message goes well beyond repeating or expounding Bible verses: they speak a message that comes uniquely to them through divine revelation. And one cannot claim to take Revelation purely “literally” – which in itself raises many problems – and then go ahead and bend that rule when it is troublesome.

The same “literal hermeneutic” must also be applied when the two prophets perform miracles in the post-apostolic age – fire smites their enemies, they turn water into blood, they call down plagues, they stop the rains – which for some might be a point of stumbling, for the same reason that “miracles cannot happen after the apostles died.”

My point is a simple one, that, even if there is but one single example of someone prophesying after the close of the canon, then we cannot claim that no prophecy occurs after the year AD 100. For most dispensationalists, a literal reading of Revelation 11 provides not one, but two examples. If one says that one must take the language of the chapter literally, let us do so consistently.

“‘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!’

  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. Thanks, Gary. I think part of the problem is that they forget that OT forthtelling is still by divine revelation.

  4. 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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