Wednesday, November 14, 2018

An Introduction to Eschatology

1. How many views of the end times are widely held?
2. Is any particular view of the end times a Baptist view?
3. Are all the several views fairly equal in age, or is one rather new?
4. Which books of the Bible have the most impact on how one sees the end times?
5. What's your favorite author or preacher on end times?
6. Does one's view of the end times impact other aspects of how the Bible is understood?

First things.
Before we start, a caveat: This will not be, cannot be, an in-depth study of this topic. Countless books have been published defending the various views we will review and, while I will rely on credible advocates to describe each system, not all who hold to any eschatological view will agree with a given advocate of that system. Anyone could claim a difference between what I present and what he believes - such is our condition, wherein advocates of a position have much difficulty agreeing on their common position.

Before we define our terms, there is a topic we need to address. Eschatology, the study of end times, is not a detached doctrine that has little or no connection to the Bible as a whole. Just as we go astray when we take a verse out of context to determine its meaning, so with any doctrine. We must anchor our doctrines in the Bible, trying to bring the biblical message to bear rather than treating this study or any other one as a standalone topic.

This helps us take what the Bible teaches as a frame of reference for the topic at hand. One author asks these questions: Who is Israel? What is a Jew? Where is Jerusalem? In the Bible there is a record of two of each of these; one physical, the other spiritual. We should all be familiar with physical Israel, ethnic Jews, and physical Jerusalem - they fill up most of our Bible. But through the lens of the New Covenant, Hal Brunson says, "Paul assigns a spiritual definition to all Christians as "the Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) and "Abraham's seed" (Gal 3:29). Paul also describes each individual Christian as a spiritual Jew whose "circumcision is that of the heart by the Spirit" (Rom 2:29). Moreover, Paul uses the term "Jerusalem" in a spiritual sense to reference the "state of grace" that believers experience through their relationship to Jesus Christ; "Jerusalem which is above," Paul declares, "is the mother of us all" Gal 4:26). Echoing Paul's language, the writer of Hebrews even asserts that believers have already "come to the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb 12:22)."

Just as our spiritual identity and spiritual family are more important than our temporal identity and temporal family, so is it when Scripture speaks of physical and spiritual Israel, Jews, and Jerusalem.

Basic definitions of words and phrases will make this study much more manageable. Key terms for us are eschatology, millennium (with the various prefixes), rapture, preterism, and futurism.

Why should we study this topic? Is it that important, or can't we ignore it and trust God, knowing it will all work out in the end? This is one of several secondary topics we can study from the Bible that are important but not essential. But if we don't take a serious look at these - including covenants and eschatology - we will end up with views of these important topics that are shallow, the product of another's study; making us disciples of man. If we continue to hold tightly to conclusions we have not made our own, we will be either subject to being swayed easily by spurious doctrines OR we will be aggressively defensive. No matter what secondary topic we come across, the proper view will be closely connected to the basic rules we have adopted for interpreting the Scriptures. This needs to be the result of careful deliberation rather than a casual journey.

It is my prayer that this short study of eschatology will spur you on to dig deeper into the Scriptures to see if these things be so. I've known some people who are unwilling to think about these things and have thrown up their hands, rightly claiming God will win in the end; calling themselves "pan-millennialists." God hasn't given us His Word to ignore the parts that are troubling or difficult to understand. He has given us His Spirit to illuminate our understanding and promises to give us wisdom if we ask. Let us humbly yet boldly ask God for His wisdom as we study this important aspect of His written revelation to us.

As noted, many people consider eschatology as a separate doctrine that does not have a large role to play in everyday life, one's view of the end times is, in reality, a logical outworking of the way one reads the Bible. God's revelation of Himself through His written Word is progressive and we cannot understand what the future holds if we do not understand what God has done in the past and what He has promised to do to His own and His enemies. Jesus said (Luke 24) that all Scripture was about Him; this guides our view of what lies ahead - it's all about Him.

Millennium literally means a period of a thousand years. Premillennialism teaches that Christ returns before the millennium, postmillennialism teaches that He returns after the millennium, and Amillennialism teaches we are in the millennium until Christ returns. We find this millennium mentioned in Revelation 20; no place else. Here is a prime example of how one's basic view of Scripture, your hermeneutic, determines your eschatology: Do you read apocalyptic (that is, vividly symbolic) literature the same way you read historical narrative? This is part of one's basic understanding of how to read the Bible and will determine whether you see the millennium as a literal expression of time or a symbolic reference to time.

Rapture is a word derived from Latin Vulgate rendering of 1 Thess 4:17, where the saints are "caught up" to meet the Lord. Historically, this has been viewed as an account of the general resurrection at the end of the age (along with 1 Corinthians 15:50-55 - page 2215 and 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 - page 2309).

Preterism and futurism are terms referring to prophecies fulfilled in the past and those to be fulfilled in the future, respectively. Full preterists claim all the prophecies of Christ's return, including His second advent, have taken place. We now live in the age to come, according to this view - which is considered heretical by virtually everyone. The futurist is at the other extreme, with the added condition that all prophecies made concerning national Israel must be fulfilled in national Israel. With both preterism and futurism there are partial views held by many people. Most of us, I would wager (if I were a betting man), are partial preterists. These two views are products of one's basic hermeneutic - how do you see the Scripture?

There are 4 basic views of the end times that are held by the saints, with some things in common and some things in conflict. Here is a brief overview of these positions, as described by leading advocates of each.

Historic Premillennialism: "After the Second coming of Christ, he will reign for a thousand years over the earth before the final consummation of God's redemptive purpose in the new heavens and the new earth of the age to come." George Ladd. Here's the basic rule of interpretation (hermeneutic) used by this system:  "Natural reading" of Revelation. Context determines whether literal or figurative. Interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament (Hos. 1:9/Rom 9:25-26, Jer.31:33ff/Heb. 8) Millennium must be Christ-Centered and is often seen as a literal 1,000 years, but this latter is not essential to this view.

Amillennialism: "...amillennialists do not believe in a literal thousand-year reign which will follow the return of Christ... the millennium of Revelation 20 is not exclusively future, but is now in the process of realization." Anthony Hoekema. This hermeneutic: Progressive Parallelism in Revelation (Earth's history repeated 7 times) OR Prehistorist: interpret in terms of meaning to 1st century church-- reassurance of Christ's victory over Roman persecutors. Context determines whether literal or figurative. Interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament.

Postmillennialism: "..the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals... the world eventually is to be Christianized and the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace, commonly called the millennium." Loraine Boettner. This hermeneutic: Revelation either mostly figurative or mostly fulfilled in 70ad (Mt. 24:34) Context determines whether literal or figurative. Interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament.

Dispensationalism: There is what’s known as “classic dispensationalism,” first taught by John Darby in the early 1800s, and then by C.I. Scofield and early 20th century folks at DTS. In the past 30 years a movement called progressive dispensationalism has emerged. This latter group is moving away from some of the more objectionable doctrines of Darby, which is very good, but is a moving target as they continue to migrate their view more towards historical teaching. To keep things manageable, in this study the term “dispensationalism” will refer to that which was taught by well-known advocates from our time. Here’s how one of their own describe it: "A golden age of described in the Bible...a millennial kingdom will be ushered in by a divine, supernatural and catastrophic manifestation from heaven at the Second coming of Christ....when the conditions of life have reached the depths of great tribulation." Herman Hoyt. This hermeneutic: The whole Bible is divided into several (originally 7) dispensations/time periods in which God acts in different ways toward man.  Interpretation must be literal whenever possible. Interpret the New Testament by the Old Testament.

The first three systems have been held by Christians since apostolic times and can be found in writings of the early church fathers. Dispensationalism has some things in common with Historic Premillennialism and Postmillennialism but, as a system, did not come into being until the 19th century and was first popularized by the notes in the Scofield Study Bible - the first study Bible widely published in this country. Only the new system of dispensationalism seeks to interpret the New Testament by the Old, denying the progressive nature of God's revelation found in the Scriptures. Only dispensationalism insists on a literal millennium. Only dispensationalism believes in more than one judgement, dividing this event into three separate events. Only dispensationalism believes in a secret rapture before the return of Christ. Only dispensationalism denies the current reign of Christ as Lord and King. Only dispensationalism believes Satan is not bound in any sense until Christ returns. Only dispensationalism insists on a near complete separation between Gentile and Jewish Christians.

Dispensationalism, alone, interprets the New Testament by the Old, insists on a literal millennium, insists on two or more judgments, insists on a secret rapture, claims Satan is rampant, denies the current reign of Christ, and builds a wall between Gentile and Jewish saints.

These seven distinctions put dispensationalism at variance with the three historic systems of eschatology and should cause any student of Scripture to view it with great caution. A long standing rule to guide our biblical interpretation is, if it's new, it's not true. Why would God keep something of significance from His people for nearly 2,000 years after the close of the canon of Scripture?

Historically, Baptists have been largely amillennial (William Carey, John Bunyan, Alexander Carson, John Broadus, Andrew Fuller, Arthur Pink, T.T. Shields, and Adoniram Judson), with a few postmillennials (B.H. Caroll, J.M. Pendleton, and A.H. Strong) and historic premillennials (Spurgeon, John Gill, and Robert Haldane) in the mix. Beginning in the early 20th century, dispensationalism has gained much ground, taking the dominant position; it now appears to be losing some ground. Major advocates of this view include Paige Paterson, John MacArthur, Jack Graham, John Walvoord, and Thomas Ice.

If you see prophecies to national Israel as something that must be fulfilled in national Israel, your eschatology will reflect that view and you will likely embrace Darby’s system. If you see all the promises finding their yes and amen in Christ Jesus, you are more likely to embrace the amillennial perspective.

We need to ask ourselves - What is our primary focus in our personal theology: is it ethnic Israel, God, or self? Is our primary focus on the heavenlies, where we sit with Christ, or on earthly matters? The honest answer to these questions will help each of us begin to examine our underlying beliefs, our presuppositions, that for the foundation for how we read the Scriptures.

Since all Christians are called children of Abraham (Romans 4:11-12; Galatians 3:29), one author encourages us to look into the Scriptures to see what eschatology he held.

When we first read of Abram (Gen 12), he is told by God to leave his people and go to a land God will show him. Leave the comfort of the known and trust the Creator to lead you to a better but unknown place. In the very next chapter, his clan has grown too large for all to live together so Abram gives nephew Lot the choice of where he will settle. Verses 10 & 11: And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram was the elder and could have chosen the land that was like the garden of YHWH, but he did not. His eyes were fixed, not on earthly things but on heavenly things.

Abram was promised a large tract of land in Gen 15, beyond Abram’s comprehension. God gave him a vision of the growth and captivity in Egypt that his earthly heirs would experience. Verses 18 – 21: On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give3  this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

In Gen 22 we have the well know story of Isaac being offered up as a sacrifice and the ram being supplied by YHWH. It was later said of Abraham, that he considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11:19). In Gen 25 we read of his death – he was buried in a cave he had bought, not having taken possession of the land promised.

All of this is summed up in Hebrews 11: 8-10. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Abraham was promised lots of land and countless heirs of his own flesh. He lived as a sojourner and exile on the earth (1 Pet 2:11). Again, from Hebrews 11:13-16 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

What is this city? Was Abraham looking for an earthly city? Hebrews says if that were the case, the ancient saints would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Abraham wasn't seeking refuge in a temporal kingdom, but in an eternal one.

This is what we are told in other places to fix our minds on. (1 Pet 2:4-5a) As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house. (Eph 2:19-22) So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Every sermon ought to present Christ properly and exhort the hearers to seek Him. This is essential for us to be reconciled to holy God. And it ought to be our focus of the end times.

R.A. Torrey, Profitable Bible Study

Do not come to the Bible full of your own ideas, and seeking from it a confirmation of them. Come rather to find out what are God's ideas as He has revealed them there.

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