I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Are the Dispensationalists Right on Revelation 1:19?

Within the dispensational tradition of Revelation’s interpretation, 1:19 has been held as a sort of flagship verse; this verse is understood to present a summary (and chronological) outline of the entire book.  For instance, John Walvoord presents this verse’s threefold breakdown clearly, following Chafer and Criswell.[1]  My interest is particularly focused on the first two clauses of v. 19.[2] 

Regarding the first clause, “the things which thou hast seen,” Walvoord remarks, “the things referred to as having already been seen are those contained in chapter 1, where John had his preliminary vision.”[3]  However, “seen” in v. 19a is eidō, which is in the second aorist, active indicative in the second person.  In 1:2c this same verb is used, but only in the third person, thus St. John referring to himself, said, “of all things that he saw.”  Here, in v. 2, Walvoord recognizes that what the verb means is a “complete recital” of all the visions contained in the book.[4]  There does not seem to be, therefore, any exegetical ground for assuming that in 1:19 St. John means something as restrictive as the content of chapter one alone; rather, it is best to take the first clause of v. 19 as meaning the full content of all the visions of the book, as in v. 2.  Examining the second clause of v. 19 also points to this conclusion.

In strict conformity with the dispensational-chronological approach to v. 19, Walvoord suggests that v. 19b, “the second division, ‘the things which are,’ most naturally includes chapters 2 and 3 with the seven messages Christ delivered to the churches.”[5]  Ironically, what triggered my more careful analysis of this verse’s interpretive import was a remark made in The Companion Bible by Bullinger, who is well known for both his great scholarship and his classical dispensational treatment of Revelation.  Concerning the second clause of v. 19, Bullinger’s notes read: “the [things which] are = what they are, i.e. what they signify.”[6]  Accordingly, the first two clauses mean that John was to write down all the apocalyptic visions of the Revelation and also what they mean, or signify, or point toward.  A look at the language of the second clause certainly fleshes Bullinger’s hint out.

The verb used in v. 19b, “the things which are,” is eisi, the third person, plural present indicative of eimi.  When one traces its usage throughout the Revelation, it becomes clear that St. John intended this verb to serve as a flag for an interpretation of a particular visionary datum.  For instance, in its next use, 4:5, we learn that what St. John sees as the “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne…are the seven Spirits of God.”  Likewise, the seemingly strange anatomical features of the Lamb in 5:6, the “seven horns and seven eyes,” actually signify or “are” the “seven Spirits of God.”  The “golden vials full of odours…are the prayers of the saints” (v. 8).  Again, in 7:13, St. John asked the angel “what are these which are arrayed in white robes.”  The angel answered, “these are they which came out of great tribulation” (v. 14).  Moreover, the two witnesses “are the two olive trees…candlesticks” (11:3—4).  The frogs of 16:13 “are the spirits of devils” (v. 14); and the “seven heads…are seven kings” (17:9), just as the “waters…are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues” (v. 15).  Granted, apart from this interpretive usage paradigm of eisi, the verb is also used in simple predication (e.g., 4:11, etc.).  Nevertheless, the predicative use notwithstanding, the significance of the verb throughout the Revelation is that it flags a vision interpretation: picturesque datum à (eisi) à interpretation. 

Therefore, according to 1:19 in the context of Revelation and St. John’s vocabulary and usage, it seems that the standard dispensational-chronological outline understanding of v. 19, as expressed by Walvoord et al., is a bit forced at best.  Instead, Jesus is here commanding St. John to write the visions and also report what they signify or mean.  Thoughts anyone? 

[1] John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), 48.

[2] Interestingly, the NIV seems to follow this tradition relatively hard with its highly interpretive take on 1:19: “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), ad loc.  Granted, the NIV is admittedly in the dynamic equivalent translation tradition.  However, that the translators decided to put “now” for the Greek verb eisi (i.e., ‘are,’ ‘be,’ ‘were’) is telling of their commitment to the dispensational interpretive tradition.  It reduces this verse of the text to an inaccurate paraphrase.   

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 36.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] The Companion Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), ad loc.


  1. I agree with your view of "eisi" and would just add that the verb is also found twice in 1:20, directly following 1:19. And eisi is used in 1:20 exactly as you pointed out in later passages, in terms of "what they are." So John says the seven stars John saw "are" angels of the seven churches; and the seven lampstands "are" the seven churches.

    1. Excellent observation; 1:20 is about as clear as it comes, especially coming right on the heels of v. 19. It is if St. John said, "Here is what is going on (v. 19), and here is what it looks like (v. 20)." Thanks for the additional examples! Blessings to you.

  2. I think you and jesusandthebible are correct in your views of "eisi" in the passages referenced. I also believe the Bible contradicts the Dispensational system at every major point.

    Good post, thanks.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bishop. So true...at every major point (and every minor point too ;). We're back in Kansas this week, and I was planning on speaking on apologetics at a local Bible church that several of our kin attend. During the pastor's examination of me, though, he brought up the doctrine of predestination and kept pressing it...so, I obliged, and we debated for about an hour (with him struggling to defend the semi-Pelagian view...ugh. At any rate, during the dialogue, at several junctures the pastor inserted the incorrect and even more irrelevant remark that "we are in the Laodicean period of church history," typical of classic dispensationalism. It was hard to resist rebut, but all I could think every time he mentioned it was, "And these guys believe that they are the ones giving the Apocalypse a 'literal' interpretation?!?!?" As badly as I wanted to jump into eschatology with him, I decided I was busy enough burning down his strawmen and chasing his red herrings concerning soteriology :) The independent fundies get so much right...and so much wrong.