Eschatology is important. As Christians, how we think about the “last things” genuinely effects how we live and how we minister to folks. Many of us today are content to let Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins do our eschatologizing as we listen to John Hagee speculate about which Blood Moon we’ll be seeing this week. The more complex our charts get and the more we theorize about Apache helicopters flying over the Gaza Strip, the more we are forced to ask, “What does eschatology have to do with me?” The answer, hopefully, is a whole lot.
Almost immediately after we get over our aversion to eschatology in general and Revelation in specific, we are greeted with encouragement, for the third verse offers blessing to those who read aloud the words of the Revelation, those who hear the words of the Revelation, and finally, those who keep what is written in the Revelation. It should be evident to us already that the Holy Spirit does not desire us to walk into a interpretative briar patch when we reach the final book of the New Testament, for Revelation 1:3 makes it clear that this book is meant to bless the Church.
That said, we may enlist the help of some seasoned guides along the way, for able saints have gone before us in interpreting the Revelation. Perhaps one of the most helpful is B.B. Warfield, the Lion of Old Princeton. Warfield brings to bear for us a rich, optimistic, postmillennial eschatology which should color the lenses through which we see the world in our daily lives.
Warfield spends a great deal of time in his essay on the Revelation walking through what is arguably one of its most challenging passages: 20:1-10, the passage in which John speaks of the millennial reign of Christ. However, before we get there, it’s important for us to spend some time with Warfield’s interpretive principles, perhaps the most helpful of which is the Principle of Symbolism.
Warfield’s Principle of Symbolism is different in scope than, say, the symbolism of the average dispensationalist. The Lion notes that “the whole fabric of the book is compact of symbols…even more than in the case of parables, we are to avoid pressing details in our interpretation of symbols: most of the details are details of the symbol, designed purely to bring the symbol sharply and strongly before the mind’s eye,” and also that when we acknowledge the nature of John’s symbols, this transfers “the task of the interpreter from the region of minute philology to that of broad literary appreciation,” for “the teaching of the book lies not immediately in its words, but in the wide vistas its visions open to the fancy.”
We cannot afford to miss what Warfield is saying here. He’s telling us not push the symbols too hard, for when we do, we fail to see the forest for the trees. If we equate locusts with helicopters, we have violated the Principle of Symbolism. Warfield is here exhorting us to see the big picture, the “wide vistas” of the Revelation, rather than spending so much effort on the fine points of prediction and “minute philology.”
Armed with this principle, Warfield walks us through the millennial passage in Revelation, starting with 19:11 and continuing on through 20:10. He starts by observing the complete and total victory of the Word of God upon His second coming. Warfield makes some important observations regarding the second half of Chapter 19: First, that this victory of Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is in fact the thing symbolized by the battle imagery of Chapter 19, and second, that the means of this victory is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, for this is what is meant by the symbol of the sword coming out of the mouth of the Word of God.
This optimism informs Warfield’s thought on the Millennium. Believing that the Gospel is the ever-advancing means by which Christ is putting all enemies under His footstool, Warfield refuses to affirm a final falling away from the Gospel during the “little time” which Satan is loosed (Rev. 20:3). Warfield turns to his Principle of Symbolism to interpret this passage, saying that the Millennium is “a description in the form of a narrative: the element of time and chronological succession belongs to the symbol, not to the thing symbolized.” In other words, Warfield is suggesting that we interpret the Millennium without respect to time.
Warfield is proposing here that the Millennium, instead of an actual period of time, is in fact the intermediate state, for those whom John sees are “the souls” of those who belonged to Christ in life, rather than material, physical humans. Thus, for Warfield, Satan is both bound and loosed at the same time. He is bound with respect to the saints in the Millennium, or heaven, who have gone away from the body to be at home with the Lord, and he is loosed with respect to the material world.
Though this may seem at first glance like a fine point of doctrine which has no practical significance, I would submit to you, Christian, that it actually has a great deal of practical significance. If Satan’s being loosed for a little time after the Millennium, as is the case in a chronological interpretation, causes a final falling away, then the ultimate success or failure of the advance of the Gospel lies within the created order, for Satan is able to influence a final apostasy from the Gospel. However, upon Warfield’s suggestion, we have the saints in glory in conjunction with the advance of the Gospel on Earth, despite Satan’s being loosed for a time.
What this tells us is that though Satan may be loosed, he is loosed to no avail, for earthly turmoil and evil are but playthings of a conquered king. Though the Church on Earth is in conflict, it is a conflict advancing to certain victory. Perhaps the thoughts of the Lion himself may be helpful: “the earthly history of the Church is not a history merely of conflict with evil, but of conquest over evil…John teaches that this conquest will be decisive and complete. The whole meaning of the vision of 19:11-21 is that Christ Jesus comes forth not to war merely but to victory; and every detail of the picture is laid in with a view precisely to emphasizing the thoroughness of this victory. The Gospel of Christ is, John being witness, completely to conquer the world.” As we live our lives in the world, may we be encouraged that the work we do is not in vain.