We are currently in a study of major themes found in Biblical eschatology, or study of the last things. Our study is going to stay focused on the big themes that are held by the church throughout history. But we will use the blog to delve a little deeper and give some explanations of some of the issues that arise in the study of these issues. The Bible has many passages that relate to the last things, including passages in Old Testament prophetic books such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Gospels contain several passages from the mouth of Jesus as he speaks of eschatological themes (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 20:27-40, Luke 21). Paul’s letters also have multiple passages speaking of Christ’s return, the resurrection and taking up of the church, the reign of Christ, and final judgment (1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, 2 Thessalonians 2, Acts 17:22-31, Romans 8:18-39). as do the General Epistles (2 Peter 3). And then there is the book of Revelation and all the symbols and ideas about the things that will “soon take place”, an entire book on topic. These writings contain prophecies and predictions that were written to people living in a specific context. Most of the time they were already experiencing persecution and suffering for their faith in Jesus. But these writings also allude to events that have some future component, especially when reading the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13) and the book of Revelation.
Over the centuries these passages have been interpreted through three basic grids (with one of the grids having two schools of thought) as people have sought to fully understand and apply the passages dealing with judgments on the earth and the return of the Lord. The goal of this blog is to show these three basic approaches and explain just a bit about how each group would see the passages, and then finally give a final statement which may (for some of you) bring all this together.
Grid 1 – The events happened in the past
This approach is generally called preterism. The people who approach these passages from this framework believe the events prophesied by Jesus and in the bulk of Revelation refer to the events that took place in the first Century, specifically in the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD. Others in this group also see the second half of Revelation up to chapter 19 speaking of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. Preterists believe that when Jesus was speaking of His return, He wasn’t speaking in these passages of His final return at the end of the age, but His return in judgment on the Jewish people for rejecting their Messiah. In Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of “this generation” not passing before the events take place, and those holding this view would see that in some way all of the events He spoke about happening in the disasterous fall of the city of Jerusalem to the armies of Titus and the destruction of the Temple. This is not the most common view, but there are good warrants for many of their arguments. John said that the events of Revelation would “soon take place.” And this approach would address the needs of the first century Christians reading these passages. Of course, most in this view are not denying the final return of Christ, the resurrection of the Church, and Jesus’ eternal reign. But they would say that the Olivet Discourse only alludes to this, and Revelation only speaks of these things after chapter 19.
Grid 2 – The events are happening now
A second approach is to look into the pages of Revelation as well as some of the other passages and determine that they are really timeless, speaking to the challenges of every generation of believers. Every generation must deal with sin in the world, the existence of ungodly world powers, suffering and persecution, and the feeling that they are losing the battle. Of course, the purpose was to give hope to suffering Christians in the first century. But that message is repeated over and over again in any generation. This is the grid that has two versions. The historist approach sees Revelation as an unfolding of the history of the church. The events are happening in that Revelation is telling the story of the flow of history since the first century toward the return of Jesus, with every chapter representing a different point in church history. The spiritual approach would realize that these passages are full of symbolism and image driven ideas. Those symbols and ideas could be reinterpreted to fit any age without any attempt to find a specific meaning. An example here is the use of the image of Babylon the Great in the book of Revelation. Babylon was one of the great seats of power and amazing cities in the ancient world during the days of the Babylonian Empire and rulers like Nebuchadnezzar. They ruled the world with an iron fist and greed. By the time of the writing of the New Testament Babylon had lost all of its importance and power. But in Revelation, John refers to this city in a symbolic way. At the time it was a reference to the Roman Empire and the city of Rome. But every generation has its evil empire and the seat of power from which leaders and the masses reject God, attack the Gospel, live in immorality, and persecute the church. Today we might see Babylon the Great imagery representing North Korea, Tehran, Moscow, or Washington D. C.
Grid 3 – The events are happening in the future
The final grid of interpretation sees the primary fulfillment of the events predicted by Jesus and by the book of Revelation taking place in the future. While there may be some first century fulfillments and ongoing meaning, the hope for all of these passages still lies in the future. This includes the rise of the Antichrist, the deceiving of nations, the Gospel preached to all nations, the resurrection and rapture of the church, the period of the Tribulation, the Second Coming of Christ, and the millenial reign of Jesus (more on that in another coming blog). Those holding this view would encourage us to look only forward when reading these passages, seeing a warning of things to come for those who do not follow Jesus and hope for those who do and endure.
So which one do I think is the right view. Believe it or not, I actually think all three are. And the reason I hold this is because it fits with the nature of Biblical prophecy. It is clear that several Old Testament prophecies had layers of fulfillment. One layer of fulfillment may have been specifically for the people at the time the passage was written. Another layer of fulfillment may have taken place at a later date in Israel’s history. And a third tier of fulfillment, a final fulfillment was to be found in the incarnation, the coming of Christ to the world. In the same way, it may be that the best way to read these passages is to realize that the authors were giving hope to people in horrible situations, promising victory over the enemies that were in their face. So the pronouncement of the Fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of Rome, and the advance of the Gospel in the Roman Empire are very real in the texts. In a very real way, Christ came in power as the judge on Jerusalem in 70 AD. On another layer, the passages speak to people in any age as they think of the powers that are over them. These prophecies give followers of Jesus hope and a call to endure because the wicked power over them is temporary and will eventually meet the judgment of Jesus as He rules. But there is probably also a future fulfillment, a sort of final way in which the coming of Christ is demonstrated as He visibly returns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And for this day we cry “Maranatha”, “Lord, come quickly!” (Revelation 22:20).
One last thought here. We need to be careful to realize that all of these positions are orthodox. In other words, this should be an open-handed debate. We can go have a cup of coffee and hold a hearty disagreement while learning from each other on this, and then when the last drop is consumed and we leave the coffee shop we can link arms and be on mission together as brothers and sisters in Christ, awaiting the final day together!
Thanks for the insight on this topic Mike. I think I’ve always fallen into the third grid on this topic, but I’ll read it with all points of view in mind next time.