John MacArthur made waves at his March 2007 Shepherd’s Conference by preaching a message titled “Why Every Self-respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist,” in which he insisted that “real” Calvinists will hold a premillennial eschatological view. This exposition of the book of Revelation in a popular, easy to read format also reflects MacArthur’s essential commitment to a premillennial, and more particularly dispensational, understanding of the doctrine of last things. The fact that it reflects MacArthur’s pre-tribulational, premillennial, dispensational views is evidenced by the back cover endorsements from Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The reader finds, however, that a plain sense exposition of Revelation is actually hindered by MacArthur’s presuppositional commitment to his end times theological system.
Overview of Content
The brief introduction (pp. 7-14) lays out MacArthur’s hermeneutical commitments. He affirms the traditional view that John the Apostle is the author of Revelation. He advocates a later date for the book, during the reign of Domitian (c. 96 A. D.), rejecting the views of Preterists who advocate an early dating of the book as written during the reign of Nero (c. 68 A. D.).
Most significantly, he makes clear his adherence to the standard dispensational timeline: a pre-tribulational rapture of the church, a seven year period of tribulation, a “great tribulation” in the final three and a half years of the seven year tribulation period, the second coming of Christ, the battle of Armageddon, the thousand year earthly kingdom of Christ (the millennium), the great white throne judgement, unbelievers cast into the lake of fire, and the redeemed in a new heaven and new earth.
MacArthur is also particularly keen to insist that his exposition of Revelation will follow a strict “literal interpretation” rather than “an allegorical or spiritual approach” (p. 10). If one denies “the plain meaning of the text” then he quickly gets “lost in a maze of human invention” (p. 10). He outlines four main approaches to Revelation (preterist; historicist; idealist; and futurist), concluding that only the futurist view meets the criteria of literal interpretation. The preterist approach ignores the book as future prophecy. The historicist view too often resorts “to allegorizing the text” (p. 13). The idealist approach, likewise, reduces the book to “a collection of myths designed to convey spiritual truth” (p. 13). According to MacArthur only the futurist approach “takes the book’s meaning as God gave it” (p. 14). He prefers this “straightforward view” (p. 14).
With his interpretive rationale completed, MacArthur proceeds to a verse by verse exposition of the book. He breaks his study into three parts: Part 1 “The Things Which You Have Seen” (1:1-20); Part 2 “The Things Which Are” (2:1-3:22); Part 3 “The Things Which Will Take Place after This” (4:1-22:21).
I found the most helpful sections of this book to be Part 2 in which MacArthur exposits the letters to the seven churches. The historical background information on the settings of the seven cities, for example, is filled with many fascinating insights that the preacher might mine for homiletical jewels. Progress in other sections of the book, however, is impeded by two steep obstacles: (1) the fact that MacArthur’s reading of Revelation superimposes his preconceived dispensationalism on the text; and (2) his inconsistent application of literalism.
The Problem of a Superimposed End Times Scheme
First, MacArthur’s analysis suffers from his insistence that Revelation must fit into his dispensational presuppositions. The dispensational scheme does not naturally emerge from the text, but it must be forced and superimposed over the text like an ill fitting article of clothing. MacArthur assumes a pre-tribulational rapture, for example, without ever explaining why the texts he cites (John 14:1-4; 1 Cor 15:51-54; 1 Thess 4:13-17; see p. 93) in support of this view might not merely be interpreted as the final and ultimate second coming of Christ. The primary text in Revelation itself he presents for the rapture is 3:10 (“I also will keep you from the hour of trial…”), but this is too heavy a burden to rest on such a slender limb. He makes repeated reference to the non-Biblical term “tribulation saints” without ever explaining why the reader should understand Revelation’s references to “saints” as referring to anything other than all believers of all ages. No such distinction is ever clearly made in the text, but it must be superimposed by presupposition. The seal, trumpet, and bowl judgements are likewise forced into the seven year tribulation scheme without direct textual support. MacArthur, further, claims that the fifth seal “marks the midpoint of the tribulation” but offers no clear text to support this claim (p. 132). He makes further reference to another term never actually found in Scripture, “the millennial kingdom.” He assumes the reestablishment of a “tribulation temple” and a millennial temple, only able to appeal to Ezekiel 40-48, since the text of Revelation contains no such straightforward teaching (see pp. 148, 180).