This is the second installment in a five-part blog series on how to think carefully and faithfully about what the Bible teaches about the end of the world. Each of the subsequent parts of this series will be released monthly through the end of the year. To read part 1 of this series, click HERE.
Last month we considered our Lord’s firm command that it is not for us to know the times or the seasons related to the end times. This is an important reminder, especially for those of us who attend Evangelical churches. Our tribe has a peculiar fascination with the end of the world.
I believe that Jesus is coming again. I believe that we must, at every moment, live in anticipation of Christ’s coming because we don’t know when it will be. I believe that when and how the end will come is in the faithful hands of our Heavenly Father, and he is trustworthy. Therefore, I want to be sure that when I speak on the end times, I speak faithfully and precisely, saying what the Scripture says and meaning what the Scripture means.
But “What about prophecy?” some might ask? Isn’t prophecy given to us so that we might predict the future and know that the times are near? Answering that question takes a great deal of careful thought, and, to be fair, it is a subject of vast disagreement among Bible scholars. I don’t propose to solve this age-old issue in the following paragraphs, but let me give you three important reminders that help us all think carefully and faithfully about this issue.
1. Your view of prophecy, even Old Testament prophecy, must be formed with Jesus and his teaching at the center.
First, any view of prophecy you have must be in keeping with the words of Jesus. In other words, let Jesus himself teach you how to read the prophets. And Jesus is abundantly clear: any method of reading the prophets that helps you figure out when the end will come, is a reading of the prophets that is in direct violation of the teaching of Jesus. Second, it is important to remember that the Old Testament prophets are there to tell us about Jesus, not to help us figure out what might be the future of the European Union, the Russian Federation, or of the statehood of secular Israel.
2. The prophecies in the Old Testament were written for you but not to you.
Every word of the Bible was written for you. It is clear to me that from Moses to the prophets to the Apostles to the Apocalypse, the authors wrote with later audiences in mind. They wrote with you in mind. But their works weren’t written to you. Each of these biblical works was written to an immediate audience. Their works were for that audience. That means that these ancient audiences had all the knowledge and perspective they needed to understand God’s word to them. If you have a way or reading of Revelation that requires you to know about the formation of the European Union or requires you to know that President Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to make sense of the prophecies in Revelation, you misunderstand the fact that Revelation was written to seven churches in Asia Minor in the first century. It was God’s word to them, and they knew everything they needed to know to understand the prophecies in the book.
3. Church history is littered with Christians who tried to make the prophecies of the end times about them.
We should learn both faithfulness and humility from the history of Christianity as it relates to the end times. There is some evidence that sizeable groups of Christians in nearly every century predicted that the end was “near,” and that the prophetic events so clearly spelled out in Scripture were about them. Martin Luther was convinced that he was living in the middle of the sixth millennium and that was when Christ would return. Christians in almost every generation have decisively identified the Anti-Christ (typically either a foreign invader or a pope). From the Munsterites who believed that Jesus would soon return to set up his kingdom in Munster to the book 88 Reasons Why Jesus is Coming back in 1988, Christians have made the prophecies of the end times about them, their generation, and their times. They have all been wrong. This is a clear and demonstrable inadequate reading of Scripture, and there is no reason to think that if we continue with more of the same that we will somehow be right.
The clearest example of this is the restoration of a secular Israeli state in 1948. It makes no more sense to build a reading of Scripture on that historic event than it did for previous generations of Christians to build a reading of Scripture about Israel based on the fact that there was no Israeli state and no temple. It is also important to remember that 1948 was now seventy years ago. From almost the moment that Israel became a state again, Christians began predicting that the end of the world would be soon. Almost everyone who was an adult when those events happened is now dead, and Christ hasn’t returned. There is no reason to think that it won’t be another 70 years or 170 years before Jesus returns. Or the end could begin tomorrow. It is not for us to know the times or the seasons when the end will come.
It is possible that if every generation predicts that the end will happen in their generation, eventually one of those predictions will turn out to be right. But that doesn’t make it a legitimate reading of Scripture anymore than flipping a coin, calling “heads” every time, and getting it right on occasion is a method of predicting the outcome of a coin flip. We should be humbled by the interpretative failures of previous generations and learn from their mistakes.
This spotty history of end times predictions in the Christian church should not, however, be seen as all bad. There is a measure of faithfulness to be found there. The New Testament is clear that we are to live our lives as if Christ could return at any moment. Peter says we are “waiting for and hastening the Day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). James says, “Behold the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9). Paul said, “It is time to wake up! Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent. The Day is at hand!” (Romans 13:11-12). To live in expectation that Christ might return today is an act of faithful obedience. We must, however, be careful to be sure we are interpreting prophetic Scripture as Jesus taught us. We must let the Bible instruct us on how to read prophecy, not the news anchor on Fox News.
I said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it. I believe that Jesus is coming again. I believe that we must, at every moment, live in anticipation of Christ’s coming because we don’t know when it will be. When and how the end will come is in the faithful hands of our Heavenly Father, and he is trustworthy. And along with Martin Luther and Christians of all generations, I say, “Amen. Come quickly, Jesus.”