Home > Bible Study, doctrines, eschatology, hermeneutics, postmodernism, S. Lewis Johnson > Hermeneutics: An example from Revelation 13

Hermeneutics: An example from Revelation 13

December 8, 2009

It never ceases to amaze me, how befuddled some people can get when it comes to basic Bible understanding, the matter of how to interpret a passage of scripture.  It comes from false teachers and false ideologies, from those who would hold to a package deal concerning “Reformed Theology” whether or not it agrees with scripture.  But too many people get “stuck” in a mindset through which they interpret Bible passages — rather than just reading the passage and accepting it for what it is.  S. Lewis Johnson remarked on this in reference to Peter’s quotation of Joel in Acts 2, that indeed it shouldn’t be that difficult to understand.  Peter was responding to their question about what was going on there at Pentecost:  the miraculous speaking in other languages by people who had never studied those languages.  Thus, the “this is that” spoken by Peter is in response to their question about the miraculous event.  Yet some people get so confused as to think that Peter is also saying that the Day of the Lord somehow came symbolically at that time.

Their minds are so trained to focus only on the soteriology, to see only the spiritual as good.  Therefore anything that includes the physical, tangible world therefore cannot also be spiritual and somehow takes away from the “spiritual significance” (really a throw-back to gnosticism and Greek philosophy, that spiritual is good and material is evil) — when really nothing could be further from the truth.  As S. Lewis Johnson has related from a true event, “If the kingdom of God can exist now on earth in a two hundred pound preacher full of fried chicken, without any reprehensible materialistic connotations, perhaps it could also exist in eating and drinking under more perfect conditions in a future millennial kingdom.”

One example of such confusion, spiritualizing a text, involves Revelation 13, which describes an event in which people take a mark, either on their hand or their forehead, which is needed in order to buy or sell goods.  Here are the relevant texts:

Revelation 13:14-17 –Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed.  He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.


Revelation 14:9-12 — A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.

It should be simple enough to read the texts and understand what is said; this describes an actual event that will take place at some point during the Last Days.  Someone (called a beast) will force people to take a mark upon their right hand or forehead, which directly relates to their ability to buy or sell.  Revelation 14:9-12 indicates that they do have a choice about it and know what they are doing.

Yet I recently discussed this with someone whose interpretation of this event is simply that the people are already marked as being of the devil and not God.  The mark is not physical, it’s a spiritual mark that shows what is truly in their heart, whether they are of God or not.  The physical details are unimportant, and the physical things described merely trivialize what’s truly important, the spiritual mark in their heart.

That is a soteriological statement, and of course the Bible would agree with that understanding, that the choices we make are determined by what’s in our heart.  But that is not the point of the text; the text is describing a particular situation, a real event in future history, in which the anti-Christ / Beast forces people to take a mark upon their hand or forehead, and this mark is directly related to their ability to buy or sell in the marketplace, and will cause hardship and death for those who do not take this mark.

I tried to point out that this mark specifically relates to the cause of buying and selling in the market, and the details are there because God thought it important to include such. The text is describing an actual event that will take place, and having an event that occurs physically in no way detracts from what is spiritual.  This person could not grasp what I said, so stuck he was in this befuddled mindset that somehow thinks we should only honor the spiritual aspects of God’s word and not the literal, physical, actual meaning.  Then he quoted “knowledge puffs up” and “I am a clanging cymbal if I have knowledge but no love” and applied that to my “interpretation” of the Revelation 13 event.  To study the Bible, and to insist that Revelation 13 means what it says, is now considered a sinful pride of knowledge.  He could not comprehend that in reality, the person puffed up in knowledge is the one who reads Revelation 13 and concludes that it really is talking about the spiritual mark in our heart rather than what Revelation 13 actually says.

O how mixed up and deceived the sinful human heart truly is: the person who intently studies God’s word to know what it means is really someone puffed up in knowledge without love, rather than a believer following after and loving God in the Psalm 119 manner.  After all, this person reasons, if you say you know what the text actually means that makes you proud in your knowledge.  The same could be said for all Bible texts, that we really can’t know for sure what the proper interpretation is.  Though this individual has not taken such reasoning to its final form, unfortunately many people today have done so and have been led astray by the Emerging Church movement.

The conversation did not last long (he walked off after declaring I was puffed up in knowledge), and in reflection afterward I could see the grace of God working in my own heart in how I dealt with the matter.  In previous years of immaturity, I would have raised my voice in argument and attempted to extend the conversation, getting nowhere.  This time I could let it go, fully recognizing that everything truly is in God’s hand and matters of understanding truly are “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.”  This time I saw the spiritual battle and prayed (yet again) for God to open this man’s heart, to remove his hardness regarding God’s word and what it says.  No words of mine, no matter how fine sounding or eloquent, will convince the person who has a spiritually hardened heart.  I also thank God for giving me of His spirit, and in His providence bringing to me good Bible teachers, such as John MacArthur and S. Lewis Johnson, to help show me the difference between man’s wisdom (spiritualizing a text to mean something different) and God’s, and to understand the difference between rightly dividing the word of God and standing up for what it says, versus the puffed-up knowledge of the one coming up with his own interpretation.

Another lesson to learn from this is the importance of showing what I believe by my actions, not merely by my words.  I reflect again on the words in Titus and elsewhere, that women show their beliefs to their husbands in how they live, as a daily example.  The conversation (though at least peaceful enough) and the mere words went nowhere; what matters is my daily life.  I can see, through these last few weeks especially, how God is dealing with me in this matter, to show my belief by my conduct.  That does not mean to neglect my daily Bible study time, reading through the 12 chapters plan and listening to good teaching, but adds to my responsibility as to how I live, keeping my matters of faith and Bible interpretation to myself while persevering in my daily walk and behavior.

  1. December 8, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    How refreshing to read so much common sense! You might enjoy my free e-book Walkabout: The History of a Brief Century. It’s a popularization of the End Times prophesies, written from the same practical standpoint as your post here. It uses the prophesies literally, not looking for endless symbolism. It becomes quite a readable story that way. Enjoy!

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