Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Soon for whom?

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place (Rev 1:1).
This is often cited by unbelievers as a classic example of a failed prophecy. These things were "soon" to take place, but in retrospect, we know they didn't happen. Not soon. Not ever. 
However, I'd like to examine the assumptions underlying that indictment. What counts as fulfillment of a prediction? 
To some extent that depends on who (or what) the prediction was for or about. Who does it concern? Soon for whom
Let's take a simple example: 
20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random[a] and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died (1 Kgs 22:20,34-35).
That prediction was about Ahab. It was fulfilled when he died. A one-time fulfillment. 
Now let's consider a more complex example:
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. 
10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (Jer 29:1-14).
i) In one respect, the fulfillment is straightforward. It was fulfilled 70 years later. 
ii) However, who was the prophecy for or about? On the face of it, the prophecy was about the exiles. But that's somewhat ambiguous. It's not the same group for the duration. Most of the exiles who originally heard the prophecy didn't live to see it play out. So in that sense, it wasn't for them. It wasn't about them. That's why they are instructed to settle down. But it also looks ahead to the final exilic generation, who will return from exile. 
Now let's take another example:  
18 If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn 15:18-19).
i) When was this fulfilled? The answer is bound up with the question of who it's for or about. It's a prediction about Christians generally. The kind of animus which every Christian generation can expect to face. It doesn't necessarily apply to every individual, but to Christians as a class, in contrast to unbelievers as a class. 
This prediction is fulfilled throughout the course of church history. It lacks a singular, one-time fulfillment. The fulfillment is diachronic because the prediction applies across generations of Christians. 
ii) Suppose, for the sake of argument, this prediction included the word "soon." Suppose Jesus said, "You will soon be hated by the world."
Although Jesus didn't put it that way, that's implicit in what he said. If the world hates them because they are not of this world, then once the world becomes aware of them, they will be hated by the world. That will happen soon enough. 
iii) Now, if this prediction was to take place "soon," does that mean it had to be fulfilled in the 1C? Would it be exclusive to 1C Christians?
It would be soon for everyone it was about. If the prediction is for Christians generally, and it will happen soon, then it's soon, not in relation to a particular period of time, but in relation to the lives of the referents. For whomever it was intended. It is soon for all interested parties. But what is soon for a 1C Christian isn't soon for a Medieval Christian, or vice versa. 
iv) Which brings us back to Rev 1:1. When you think that was meant to be fulfilled isn't something you can derive from the adverb alone. Rather, you must determine who the prophecies in Revelation are about. It will be soon for them–whoever they are. 
A preterist will say it's soon for 1C Christians. A premill will say it's soon for the final generation. An amil will say it's soon for Christians at different times. For instance, Revelation predicts persecution. From an amil standpoint, that's about Christians generally. For premils, that's about endtime Christians. 
Likewise, Revelation predicts that dying Christians enter the rest of the blessed (14:13). That's true for all Christians, who die at any time.

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