The Basics: Understanding all the details in eschatology

This is one of a series of articles on what I am calling “The Basics” of end-times study. These are foundational concepts that help define the geography of eschatology. They are landmarks that help us get our bearings when we are entering an end-times passage.

Studying eschatology can be intimidating because, in any given end-times passage, there may be terms or expressions which we do not recognize and there is little in the context to give us a clue or to point us in a particular direction. In most genres of Scripture, the unknowns in the text can be deduced by looking at the context or by observing how similar words are used elsewhere in the Bible. In eschatology, however, there are times when the entire context is confusing, the words are used only in eschatological passages, and the contents of the passage yield no solid, unambiguous starting point. An example would be Revelation 9:13-19, where we read of four angels and two hundred million horsemen and hyacinth breastplates and fire and brimstone coming out of the mouths of the horses. How are we supposed to make sense of all this? (For the curious, the sixth trumpet is the most severe warning for the unrighteous telling of the fast-approaching final judgment and urging them to repent of their wickedness.)

In passages like the Revelation 9, the student of eschatology can take heart, because understanding every detail of a passage is not necessary for understanding the meaning of the passage. It is not necessary to unpack every single symbol in Revelation or Daniel or any end-times passage to understand their messages, and even to grasp the beauty of the individual visions and passages.

MYSTERIES REMAIN HIDDEN

The fact is that it may not be possible for us to understand or explain everything that is happening in all of John’s visions or Daniel’s dreams. Those details may be things which the Lord, for His own purposes, has chosen to leave hidden from us. Even Daniel, who was specifically gifted by God to interpret dreams and visions (Daniel 1:17; 4:9; 5:11-12), did not fully understand what he had seen, even after he had been given an explanation by angels (Daniel 7:15-22, 28; 8:15-19, 27; 12:8). Humility would say that, if Daniel and John did not fully understand all they recorded, there is a more than even chance that I, too, will need to accept some degree of mystery. For His glory, God has written mysteries into His Bible that may remain hidden or unexplained until heaven, and we joyfully and humbly bow before these mysteries.

RESIGN OURSELVES TO MYSTERY?

            If we acknowledge that mysteries may remain until heaven and that there are details beyond our grasp, does that mean that we give up trying to understand and interpret eschatology? Absolutely not! Despite the effort involved, the disciple of Jesus continues to explore and pray through these difficult passages because these, too, are breathed out by the God he loves and are profitable for equipping him for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

            SDG                 rmb                 3/15/2021

Eschatology: Entering a new culture

Reading biblical eschatology, especially in books like Revelation and Daniel, is like being a stranger in a foreign country. The Bible student is suddenly immersed in a confusing culture of strange language and unfamiliar customs and alien sights and sounds. All that they have learned and experienced in their native country is of little value as they try to make sense of the new environment.

What is the student of eschatology to do? The student must study end-times literature (“eschatology” = study of last things) with the humility of a traveler going to a foreign land, having the attitude of an observant learner. Here is what this looks like:

“Oh, wait! I have heard that phrase before. That seems to be an important phrase. I wonder what that means.”

“Now, wait a minute. When my host said this word, that happened. So, that word must mean this.” And so on, through countless iterations, the learning continues.

As time goes on, the traveler develops theories about the language and the culture, and then begins testing those theories to see if they are true. “Let me see. I think this means that. Does this mean that? Oops! Awkward moment! No, maybe this doesn’t mean that.” Gradually, step by step the culture begins to make sense. Words that were once strange become familiar and useful. Sights and sounds that were once alien and confusing become normal.

Time and humble observation are the keys. Couple humble observation with a system for capturing and connecting your observations and, over time, you will understand the culture. If you are humble and patient and diligent, you may eventually be mistaken for a native.

But notice that with eschatology, as with a foreign culture, you are required to adopt it. You do not impose your views on it, but you patiently and humbly conform to this unusual, unfamiliar, God-breathed Scripture, as you adopt it as your own. In other words, you do not conform the inspired Word to your ideas, but rather you allow the Word to teach you its ideas. In our analogy, the Word is the native, and we are the foreigners.

To give a personal example, I moved to Russia in January of 1997 to begin what turned out to be three years of “missionary” work with the Navigators, a US-based parachurch organization. I lived in a small town called Pushkin outside of St. Petersburg. I immediately entered a foreign culture where I could not talk (I did not speak Russian at the time) and where I had difficulty walking, since the streets were covered with ice and snow. If I had entered that environment resolved to teach the people of Pushkin how to speak English and to convey to them the pleasures of peanut butter, I think that I would have been frustrated. A better approach was to resolve to learn Russian and to try to walk on ice and to eat what they eat and to adopt their culture as my own. By God’s grace, that is what happened.

You can see the analogy with eschatology. Perhaps one of the reasons why Americans have difficulty with understanding eschatology is that most Americans have never had to adopt a foreign culture. That means most Americans have never been through the process of humble observation needed to change their perspective and to see things through a different lens. But eschatology is not like gospel or like narrative history or like Psalm or Proverbs. When studying eschatology, you must adopt the culture of eschatology or you will remain a foreigner and the culture of eschatology will be forever confusing.

SDG                 rmb                 2/17/2021

Biblical Prophecies and Eschatology

One of the most distinguishing marks of the Bible is its many prophecies about the future. In this, the Bible is unique among all books ever written. No other book, and certainly no other “religious book,” contains anything like biblical prophecy, but in the Bible, prophecy is common. The Bible makes predictions about things that are going to take place centuries or even millennia in the future, and then those prophecies come to pass.

Another distinctive of the Bible is the God-centered worldview it contains from Genesis to Revelation. Part of this God-centered worldview is the concept that history is linear. “History is linear” means that God has determined the beginning of history and God has also appointed the end of history. God is eternal, but His creation is not, and things will not endlessly go on as they are. Jesus Christ is coming back, and so the creation is hurtling toward the end at the rate of sixty seconds a minute.

Combining the idea of “prophecy about the future” with the concept that “there is an end to history,” we arrive at a working definition for eschatology: The study of the Bible’s prophecies about the end-times (also known as “last things”). This article will consider end-times’ prophecy and some thoughts about how to do that study.

What is the purpose of a prophecy? A prophecy is given in the Scriptures so that, when that prophecy is fulfilled, it will again be demonstrated that God is the one who has planned all things (Romans 4:21) and that He is able to fulfill the prophecies that He makes. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).” For this reason, when God makes a prophecy in His Word, He not only guarantees the fulfillment of that prophecy, but He guarantees that the fulfillment of the prophecy will be recognized. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, the LORD made a prophecy that “The virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Then, more than 700 years later, God fulfilled that prophecy in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:23). The virgin, Mary, was with child and she bore a Son, Jesus, who was Immanuel, “God with us.” Prophecy made. Prophecy fulfilled and prophecy recognized. And this pattern, of “Prophecy made – Prophecy fulfilled and prophecy recognized,” is repeated literally hundreds of times, especially regarding the first advent of Jesus Christ. Prophecies made. Prophecies fulfilled and recognized.

Now, the prophecies about the first advent of Jesus have all been fulfilled, because Jesus Christ appeared in the flesh almost 2,000 years ago. But there are many prophecies in the Bible that are still unfulfilled because those prophecies are concerning Jesus Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the age. Even though these prophecies of Jesus’ return are yet unfulfilled, their purpose is the same as the purpose stated above and their guarantee is the same as the guarantee above. God has written prophecies about the end of the age for the purpose of proving that He has planned all things and that He is able to fulfill the prophecies that He makes. God is glorified by making then fulfilling prophecies. This also means that, since God has made these end-times prophecies about the end of the age and the return of Christ, He has guaranteed their fulfillment and has guaranteed that their fulfillment will be recognized.

These two ideas about prophecy, that end-times prophecy will fulfill God’s purpose and that all end-times prophecies are guaranteed fulfillment and recognition, justify the effort involved in discerning the meaning and the timing of the end-times prophecies in the Scriptures. Since all the prophecies of the end of the age will certainly be fulfilled, then the disciple of Jesus is encouraged to “make careful searches and inquiries seeking to know when we can anticipate the revelation of Jesus Christ (adapted from 1 Peter 1:10-13).”

While making careful searches and inquiries, it must also be acknowledged that the study of eschatology is hard work, and there are special challenges when studying end-times’ prophecy.

  1. The first thing to try to figure out is if this vision or passage is about the end of the age or about Jesus’ return at all, or is it about something else entirely?
  2. What is the nature of the prophecy? Since many of the prophecies about the end of the age and the return of Christ are given in figurative, apocalyptic language, it can be difficult to discern what is being prophesied. Discerning this is critical, for if the nature and meaning of the prophecy are not correctly discerned, then it is impossible to recognize the prophecy’s fulfillment.
  3. Understanding prophecy demands a thorough knowledge of all of Scripture. The more Scripture you have in your head, the more material the Holy Spirit has to use in showing related words and phrases and visions. Also, a deep familiarity with the whole Bible helps you to understand the language and the idiom of Scripture.

All these steps in exegesis require skill, prayer, and patience. Skill means gathering good exegetical tools and learning to use them well. Prayer is needed for the Holy Spirit’s insight. Patience keeps you moving forward in the study and prevents giving up. And all of this is meaningful because prophecy glorifies God. So, we willingly sacrifice ourselves (Romans 12:1) to see what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9).

WHAT PROPHECIES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?

We have established that God will certainly fulfil the prophecies He makes in His Word. Guaranteed. Our task is to identify God’s prophecies in the Scriptures and then interpret them such that they form a cohesive picture. So, what are some of the prophecies we need to examine in our study of the end-times? A partial list follows.

Resurrection * (1 Thess. 4)                             The Seventy Weeks (Daniel 9)

The apostasy (2 Thess. 2)                               The man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2)

The beast (Rev. 13)                                         The false prophet (Rev. 13, 16)

The 144,000 (Rev. 7; 14)                                 Time, times, and half a time **

Forty-two months **                                      1,260 days **

The trumpets (Rev. 8-9)                                  The seals (Rev. 6)

The “four horsemen” (Rev. 6)                        The battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16)

The bowls of wrath (Rev. 16)                          The two witnesses (Rev. 11)

The “thousand years” (Rev. 20)                      The great white throne judgment (Rev. 20)

The little horn (Daniel 7)                                 The small horn (Daniel 8)

The rider on the white horse (Rev. 19)           The lake of fire (Rev. 19; 20)

NOTE “Millennium” = “thousand years”      * Resurrection includes “the rapture”

** These three expressions are what I refer to collectively as the 42 months*.

And there are others, but the main point is this: God has placed these prophecies in His Word for His glory. They will certainly come to pass, and they will be recognized. This is what makes the study of eschatology so exciting and rewarding.

SDG                 rmb                 2/11/2021

End-Times Study of 2 Thess. 2 #2: The apostasy (2:3)

Back on January 21 I published a blog post introducing an end-times Bible study on 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. The title of that post was not terribly creative: “End-Times Study of 2 Thess. 2: Introduction to the study.” As I have further considered this study, I have decided to publish the long articles as “pages” on my “Roy’s Reflections” site and to announce each long article with a blog post, summarizing the longer article and also providing a link to the “page” for those who want to read more. So here is the first of my announcements. I hope you enjoy the study. rmb

WHY THIS STUDY OF 2 THESSALONIANS 2?

The Lord has given us eschatological passages (passages about the end of the age or “last things”) in His Word to show us “the things which must soon take place (Revelation 1:1).” Jesus Christ will surely return to this earth bodily in power and glory (Acts 1:11) and will draw history to a close, and there will certainly be a generation of people who will see Him coming on the clouds (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 24:29-31). Given the unprecedented events of recent history and the general trajectory of events into the future, I have wondered if, perhaps, we might be that generation of people. That is, does what the Bible describe as the events at the end of the age bear any resemblance to what we see swirling around in our world today? This study through 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12 is an attempt to answer that question.

WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT TODAY? THE APOSTASY

“Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:3

In this article the subject will be “the apostasy” from 2 Thessalonians 2:3. The apostasy (“rebellion” in the ESV) is one of the “gating events” mentioned in this passage, for Paul says that “it (the day of the Lord) will not come unless the apostasy comes first.” Thus, according to Paul’s teaching, the apostasy must take place before Jesus will return. Our study of the apostasy, then, should answer two questions: 1) What exactly is “the apostasy?” and 2) Has the apostasy taken place yet? If we can answer the first question satisfactorily and then answer “yes” to the second question, we can be confident that at least this end-times event is not preventing His return.

The article then goes on to attempt to answer these two questions (above) and then to draw some conclusions.

Link to article: End-Times Study of 2 Thess. 2 #2: The apostasy (2:3) – Roy’s Reflections

SDG rmb 1/27/2021

End-Times Study of 2 Thess. 2: Introduction to the study

Because the unprecedented events of recent history have been happening very quickly and because things that seemed far-fetched only a short time ago are now matters of fact and reality, I felt the desire to write a series of blog posts on 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12, one of the clearest passages in the Bible on the events that will take place at the end of history. This section of Scripture presents key information about the events and personalities of the end-times, the time just before the return of Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 2 also provides connections to other eschatological passages in the Bible, which enables us to form a clearer and more cohesive picture of last things.

OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY

The study will be presented in a series of blog posts which cover the features Paul presents to his readers in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. This blog will be an introduction to the study, including an overview of the entire passage and a consideration of the context of the letter of 2 Thessalonians. Subsequent posts will examine each of the major features (events, personalities, etc.) of this passage and attempt to clarify their place in the end-times mosaic. This examination of the major features of the passage will also show connections and similarities with other Scriptures, demonstrating that the Bible presents a consistent and discernable vision for last things. The purpose of the study is to help us be ready and be on the alert (Matthew 24:42, 43, 44; 25:10, 13) for Jesus’ return. The goal of the study is to show that, while we are aware that Jesus could return at any time, there are end-times events occurring almost every day that persuade me that Jesus could be very “near, right at the door (Matthew 24:33).” Recognizing the time should move us to greater urgency with our task of proclaiming the gospel and should remind us to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel.

OVERVIEW OF THE PASSAGE

The letter of 2 Thessalonians was written by the apostle Paul around AD 52. Paul wrote two letters to these new believers at Thessalonica to encourage them in the face of persecution and to remind them of the things that he (Paul) had taught them when he founded the church a few months before. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians contain eschatological (end-times) passages. 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 gives details about the resurrection of believers, both those who have already died (“fallen asleep”) when Jesus returns and those who are still alive when He comes. 2 Thessalonians gives a picture of the actual return of Christ in 1:6-10, as well as giving details of the events which lead up to Christ’s return in our subject passage in 2:3-12. The reason Paul is writing 2 Thessalonians 2 is that some people had been spreading the news that the day of the Lord (i.e., the day that Jesus returns) had already come (2:1-2). Paul says, “not so.” “Let no one in any way deceive you (2:3).”

Paul then goes on to explain in 2:3-12 the way future events will unfold to convince the believers in Thessalonica that they have definitely not missed the day of the Lord. First, there are two events that must take place before the day of the Lord can come: The “apostasy” and the revealing of the man of lawlessness (2:3). (I am going to refer to these as “gating events,” because, until they happen, they effectively prevent the day of the Lord from occurring.) When he is revealed, the man of lawlessness makes a huge show of himself and even displays himself as being God (2:4). But “now” the man of lawlessness is being restrained until his time has come (2:6-7). Then, when he is finally revealed, “the lawless one” will engage in the activity of Satan and will show off with signs and false wonders (2:9). With every “deception of wickedness,” the man of lawlessness will deceive the unrighteous because they did not believe the truth of the gospel (2:10). God then sends on the unrighteous “a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false (2:11).” The unrighteous will thus be condemned because they did not believe the truth (2:12), and the Lord will slay the man of lawlessness with the breath of His mouth at His coming (2:8).

These are the events that we want to unpack over this series of blogs to see what they reveal about the end-times.

EVENTS AND TOPICS TO BE COVERED IN THE STUDY

Here are some of the events and topics that will be covered in these blogs:

  • The apostasy (2:3) (“gating event”)
  • the man of lawlessness – his revealing (“gating event”), his activity, his source of power, his end. Many cross-references and similarities to other Scriptures and other figures.
  • The “restrainer” (2:6-7)
  • The “Parousia” (coming) of Jesus (2:8)
  • The “deception of wickedness” (2:10)
  • “A deluding influence” (from God) (2:11)

CONNECTIONS WITH OTHER SCRIPTURE

In this study, we will be looking at other eschatological passages in the Scriptures, particularly in Daniel and Revelation, and will see that, while a single passage may leave us confused about its meaning, a second or a third passage or verse as cross-reference or comparison can make the obscure clear. Hopefully by the end of this study, there will be a greater understanding of eschatological terms and concepts, and a clearer understanding of the overall flow of end-times in general. It is my opinion that, if we meet these goals, we will sense a greater urgency to live for Jesus and the gospel.      

SDG                 rmb                 1/21/2021

Why should we study end-times?

            Since the disciple of Jesus is to be living in anticipation of our rapture (or death), why should we study the end-times? Besides the obvious reasons for studying anything in the Bible, there are two prominent reasons for spending time in the eschatological passages of Scripture.

The first reason is that studying the end-times and then seeing these events coming to pass in our lifetime increases our sense of urgency and causes us to work harder. How does that work? Imagine that you are a forty-five-year-old American believer in good physical health. As you look out at the future, you could reasonably expect forty more years before your death. Nothing is guaranteed, but, based on statistics, an expectation that you would live forty more years would not be imprudent or unreasonable. In this case, if you had something that you wanted to accomplish for the Lord or had a special mission that you wanted to complete before you died, you would have a slight sense of urgency, because you felt that you had forty years or so to get it done.

But now suppose that you were that same forty-five-year-old American believer in good health and were studying last things in the Bible and began to see happening on your morning Internet news feeds events that were predicted by the Bible as events of the end-times. At first cautiously and then with increasing excitement, the news articles began to sound more and more like fulfillment of the biblical prophecies and, as your conviction began to grow, you began to seriously contemplate the possibility that you might not quietly live out your days in serenity, but you might be raptured before your physical death or you might even be martyred. In other words, an any-minute return of Jesus would supply a sense of urgency that a “normal” Christian life would (potentially) lack. You would get after your kingdom projects with vigor.

The second reason for spending time in the eschatological passages of Scripture is to persuade us beyond any reasonable doubt that Jesus is certainly coming back. That one day the resurrected Jesus Christ is returning from heaven to earth to destroy all the unrighteous and to judge the world is a lot for a new believer to take in. The events of the end of the age seem so fantastic that they almost cannot be real. Then the adversary, Satan, whispers his doubts in your ear and the world adds its ridicule and scoffing, and the believer who is not scripturally rooted and grounded can become effectively agnostic in their beliefs. Before long, they have abandoned the return of Christ as Christian myth, not realizing that they have unwittingly actually gone apostate. A Christianity without a returning Christ is an anemic fairy tale.

But now picture the believer who has a sure grasp of Scripture and who is not intimidated by the apocalyptic language of end-times prophecy. This disciple reads and studies the whole word of God with prayerful diligence. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and so all Scripture is to be understood and enjoyed in a godly walk with the Lord. Yes, some of the eschatological passages are difficult to understand fully, but they are not inconsistent. Jesus has certainly been resurrected and He has ascended to the Father’s right hand and there will be a day when the Father sends Him back to gather all His people to Himself and to judge all the unrighteous to eternal punishment. All the Scripture affirms this, and the Scripture cannot be broken. God cannot lie, and His Word is therefore always true. Therefore, the disciple of Jesus is to work hard to understand the difficult end-times passages and thereby to become more and more convinced of the soon-coming return of Jesus. The more the disciple studies the Scripture, the deeper the roots go and the more convinced they are of all that the Scripture declares, including the bodily return of the glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Satan’s whispers are ignored and the ridicule and scoffing of the world becomes the noise of fools who are perishing. Christ is coming back, and it could be today, and I am looking up.

SDG                 rmb                 1/6/2021

To fulfill the Scriptures: Thoughts on Christ’s advents

“How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled? But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets (Matthew 26:54, 56).”

            When Jesus was being “betrayed into the hands of sinners (Matthew 26:45),” His disciples attempted to defend Him so that His arrest would not happen. But Jesus told them to put their sword back into its place and consciously allowed Himself to be taken away. Why did He do that? This was done because the Scriptures, written centuries before, must be fulfilled. Not the smallest letter or stroke could pass from the prophecies about His passion and His crucifixion until all was accomplished (Matthew 5:18). In a sense, Jesus was not free to conduct His arrest and crucifixion any way He wanted, because these events had already been scripted in the Law and the Prophets, and the Scriptures must be fulfilled. To know the events that lay before Jesus as He gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) we would need only to carefully study the pages of the Old Testament to see what the prophets had written.

            The point that I am making is that the Scriptures, as the Word of God, will certainly be fulfilled. Every prophecy about the Lord Jesus will be accomplished because these prophecies have been etched forever in God’s Word and are, therefore, manifestations of God’s truth. This has direct bearing on our understanding of Christ’s first advent and especially on His second advent.

AS THE FIRST ADVENT, SO THE SECOND COMING

            As all the Scriptures’ prophecies about Christ’s first advent were fulfilled by the Lord Jesus in the events and circumstances of His earthly life, from His conception to His birth to His earthly ministry to His suffering and crucifixion to His death and resurrection and to His ascension into heaven, so all the prophecies about His Second Coming must necessarily be fulfilled before He will return.

            God’s prophets and His faithful people carefully examined the Scriptures to anticipate Christ’s first advent (1 Peter 1:10-12; Simeon in Luke 2:25-35; Anna in Luke 2:36-38). In the same way, Christ’s people rightly examine the Scriptures to anticipate His Second Coming and to wait eagerly for His return (Hebrews 9:28), when He comes to judge the earth (Psalm 96:13; 98:9) and to bring all His people to heaven.

            In this way, we can get a right perspective on the study of “eschatology,” also known as “last things” or “end times.” It is for the purpose of anticipating our Lord’s glorious coming and for the goal of increasing our eagerness that we carefully study the prophecies of the end-times that God has placed in His Scriptures. As we eagerly anticipate Christ’s coming, our strength to persevere is increased. The prophecies of the time before our Lord’s return include severe testing of the church through persecution and trial. A hope that is fixed on heaven and an eager anticipation of our soon-coming King will hold our feet firmly on the Rock.

            In Matthew 24, it is clear that the Lord Jesus expected His disciples to look forward to His return. He tells them of the events of the distant future (“Behold, I have told you in advance.” v. 25) so that they will know that He is the one who will bring these things to pass, and He tells them, “When you see all these things, recognize that He (the Son of Man) is near, right at the door (v. 33).” It seems to me that Jesus wanted us to be excited about His return, and He put all sorts of prophecies into His Word so that we would have a reason to get excited.

            The Lord has given us His Word, the Bible, so that we would know all He has chosen to reveal to us about the future and about the return of our glorious King. All the prophecies concerning Jesus’ return are “the things which must soon take place (Revelation 1:1).” All the Scriptures about our Lord’s coming will certainly be fulfilled, and when we see all these things, we know that He is right at the door. We therefore study the prophecies of the end-times to glorify God and to strengthen our resolve to persevere.

SDG                 rmb                 12/22/2020