I remember CS Lewis once making the distinction between motives of possession. A teddybear may belong to a child, but not in every sense. It is his to cuddle and command; but it is not his to tear to pieces if he wishes.
The same principle is true for scripture, it is given to us, and to no one else, but with limits. Our position of scripture is part of the biblical ethic, and it comes with respect to its author. We don't own God's Word to do with as we wish.
Although we know this to be true in one biblical literary type, Prophecy, it’s as if these rules of hermeneutics have somehow been suspended. We are in need of re-adhering to sound hermeneutics again when it comes to Biblical Prophecy. Prophecy is not ours to do with as we please.
We have always had more curiosity than we have the capacity to understand. But our problem with knowledge about the future is more insidious than mere capacity. We have a great appetite for ‘crystal ball‘ type knowledge; I call it “prophetic candy”. We desperately want to know; for our own selfish benefit and from our narrow, skewed and tainted perspective, and we will always start with the lowest hanging fruit.
Graciously God has given us what we really need in biblical prophecy, and prevented us from having the damaging knowledge that we so desperately want.
What we want is to be able to map out the future, what He has given us instead is relational reassurance. Jesus’ words are as true for us as they were for those he spoke to in Acts 1:7, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
When things happen, as they always do, God’s provision in biblical prophecy will enable us to look back and remember what God said; and take great comfort even in very trying circumstances. Like the disciples who “did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him” (John 12:16).
Not every believer can distinguish between prophetic candy and prophetic reassurance; but it comes clear as we examine exactly what God has given us in biblical prophecy, and we acknowledge the things He has not given us.
So when it comes to biblical prophecy, what exactly can we know and what exactly can’t we know?
This article seeks to answer a few questions:
- What is the history and basis of the dispensational movement?
- What can we tell about the accuracy of its doctrine purely by looking at scripture?
- What does scripture actually say about the end times?
Much of it comes from Dr Michael Eaton’s systematic theology series “The Whole Counsel of God“, preached at Cornerstone in April 2005 and April 2006. The full 47 sessions can be found here.
Biblical prophecy works as a panorama of the future that unfolds over time. Before the events prophesied we have a general, sweeping view of them. This is achieved largely through the use of the apocalyptic style of writing. We can know generally what will happen but it does not give us a crystal ball view of the future. It does not allow us to map out a detailed story of specifics and then watch them unfold by our interpretation. Apocalyptic writing is intentionally vague about many of the details we often want to to focus in on, but it is not at all vague about it’s primary subject.
The primary function of biblical prophecy is that the reader at the time of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy has a deep and profound reassurance that God is there with them, He has already seen and foretold the events they are witnessing, and it will all be OK.
I don’t think it is possible to overstate the significance of the true value of biblical prophecy, or the danger of seeking detail and definition where intentionally none is given.
The book of Daniel, for example, carried exiled and persecuted Jews through some of the darkest and most bewildering centuries, from Nebuchadnezzar all the way through to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus in AD70. They remained intact as a people, envisioned and keeping records right up to the birth of Christ; why? Because they could witness the pre-knowledge of God unfold before them as they read the pages of Daniel’s work. General overview became definite and specific events as they happened.
The gospels are another good record. The disciples were able to make sense of the specifics of biblical prophecy about Christ after the events, but they, like everyone else at the time, were utterly bewildered before them (with the exception perhaps of the wise men from the East).
For Peter the personal prophetic words of Jesus at the end of John’s Gospel must have felt like cold comfort, “…when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18). The next verse tells ut that Jesus told this to Peter to indicate the kind of death Peter was going to die.
At the time Jesus said nothing to the apostle James who, not long after, was arrested together with Peter and promptly put to death. Peter was left in jail awaiting his execution the following day. Aware of James' execution Peter was probably expecting the worst; but Acts tells us that when the angel came to set Peter free, he had to strike Peter to wake him. Why was Peter sleeping so soundly the night before his execution just after James’ execution? Because Jesus had given him a prophecy, even though he could not tell exactly where or when he was to die, he knew enough to be sure it would not be on that day for he was not yet old!
If you were James would you have wanted to know your fate? I would have if I were James.
Would that knowledge have helped James? No it would not have. Yet the knowledge Jesus shared with Peter helped Peter to sleep soundly. And, true to Jesus' words, that night an angel shook the prison open and rescued Peter.
Likewise biblical prophecy is not given us to untangle the future; to know the detail of events before they happen. And to expect that of biblical prophecy is not wise use of scripture, neither is it sound hermeneutics.
Having said all that, I am not suggesting that we don’t try and know what we can. After all, “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Prov. 25:2) There are specifics in biblical prophecy that are knowable. But let’s not throw out hermeneutics in our study, let’s be systematic and reasonable. Let’s start by recognizing that the apocalyptic books are not trying to be difficult to understand. The word ‘apocalypse’ means to uncover and to reveal. The apocalyptic books, however, are revealing only a few specific things at a time, and they are trying to be vague about pretty much everything else. When one thinks about it that is exactly how it ought to be.
Forcing a definition out of what God is not telling is surely a foolish errand.
Let’s start by recognizing that the apocalyptic books are not trying to be difficult to understand.
So as we discuss end times biblical prophecy it’s good to have in our minds a general summary of it:
- The bible predicts great persecution for Christians in the gospel age, and that has proved to be the case, and may continue to be the case.
- It also predicts profound success for the Church, and that has also been the case, increasingly over time. Despite setbacks, failures and persecution, Christians have not only reached many nations with the truth they have also brought the most significant changes to science, politics, cultural development, education and just about every other sector of society.
Modern history itself has shown us that these two predictions, persecution and success, are not contradictory but may coincide in parallel in different places and at different times and even at the same place and time.
- All nations will turn to Christ eventually, the last of them being the Jewish nation. We also know that the path is narrow and few find it (Matt 7:14) and that not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter heaven (Matt 7:21).
- Jesus will come again, one time more; in final and complete glory.
- There will certainly be a rapture at the second coming of Christ, but it cannot possibly be a “secret” rapture because it happens simultaneously with His second coming, which is anything but secret.
We will look at three portions of scripture, some parts of Daniel, Matthew 24 and Revelation in the order of their appearing. This helps us see it through the original audiences eyes.
When we come to Daniel chapter 9 we will deal with dispensationalism, it’s history, impact and accuracy.
We’ll only be looking at chapter 2, 7, 8 & 9 and briefly summarize chapters 10 to 12.
1.1 Daniel 2
Daniel predicted, through Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream, that four or five dominant empires would come to the earth and during that time God would establish an eternal Kingdom, and that God’s Kingdom would eventually destroy these earthly empires. History now tells us that these empires were:
- Medo Persian
- Byzantine, the unstable and unbiblical “church-state” (really an extension of the Roman empire).
The first three are named specifically by Daniel. Rome is not named specifically (probably because God was being intentionally vague about it). The focus is on God’s Kingdom, through Jesus, being set up during the rule of the fourth kingdom. This proved to be during the Roman empire (Dan 2:44).
When one looks at it this way from a heavenly perspective one can see how easily we can miss the significant events in life. A little boy born in Bethlehem because of a decree to dirt poor parents hardly looked significant in the light of the Roman empire, Herod the Great and the Pharisaical rule of the day.
Yet the event was not invisible, Simeon saw it, so did Anna and the Shepherds (Luke 2) and the Wise Men (Matthew 2).
From our point of view we see one nation conquering another, but from God’s view he sees one building on the next like an international Dr Frankenstein building a monster.
God’s view is, of course, much more accurate. As we examine our own culture we see Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman influences everywhere. Also we know that behind these kingdoms, in the spiritual realm, are principalities and powers, spiritual personalities of regional authority who were around before Babylon and are still around today.
1.2 Daniel 7
Following the timeline, Daniel 7 tells us that this Godly Kingdom would be given to Jesus (Dan 7:13-14) after his resurrection as he returned to the father.
Let’s explore this concept in a bit more detail, Jesus refers to it as “the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 16:28) which he gets directly from Daniel 7:13.
It is easy to mistake the meaning of this phrase as if He were coming to us, but in the context clearly He is coming to the Father. Most often apocalyptical writing is from the perspective of heaven, not earth.
Matt 10:23, Matt 16:27-28, Matt 24:30, Mat 25:31, Mark 8:38, Mark 14:61, Luke 9:26
These gospel references are all of Jesus referring to Daniel 7:13-14 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
This is not a picture of Christ coming to earth, as a man or at His second coming. It is a picture of Christ coming back to The Father in Heaven after his resurrection, the gospel references all make perfect sense if read that way. In all these scriptures Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” to describe himself, He is referring to this event prophesied in Daniel.
This is especially true for the following verses in Matthew 24
“30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
Jesus is not dealing here with His second coming to earth, but with His return to Heaven.
It does not matter whether one reads it that the mourning of all tribes and the gathering of His elect are much later results of Him returning to heaven at His ascension; or whether one reads this as poetic symbolism of the significance of His return to heaven. What matters is that he is still dealing here with His return to Heaven, not with His second coming.
A few verses later in Matthew 24 He begins to deal with His second coming, he begins it by making a distinction from all that he had said before:
Matt. 24:36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,but the Father only.” The phrase “that day” is our indication that now Jesus is answering the disciples’ second question and is done answering their first question (see chapter on Matthew 24 below),
This must be the way we are to read it because in verse 34 He states clearly that this generation will not pass away till all that he is talking about has happened. Two verses later He speaks about another day, “that” day the timing of which even He does not know. These are clearly two separate events. We will cover this in more detail in the chapter on Matthew 24. The first event was imminent, during the lifetime of most people in the hearing of his words.
At His ascension Jesus came to the Ancient of Days seated on the throne. He was not like the beasts which came from sea, symbolic of the restlessness of the nations. No, this “Son of Man” came in victory as a warrior conqueror. And at that time He was given a Kingdom.
It is a discipline to see this scripture from God’s perspective, not ours, to set our minds of things above, not on earthly things.
We refer to Christ leaving, Daniel refers to Christ coming; it’s the same event, but a different perspective. From heaven’s perspective the second coming of Christ to earth is the second going of Christ, this “Coming of the Son of Man” is to the Father after his victory over death.
The time context in the symbolic story of Daniel 7 agrees with the gospel references at the beginning of this chapter. This event happened during the Roman reign, at the time of Christ’s Resurrection, His ascension, and the fall of Jerusalem.
The New Testament also agrees, Christ has already been given his kingdom:
“He must reign until He has put all things under His feet.” 1Cor. 15:25
“All authority has been given to me.” Matt 29
In Daniel 7 the four beasts, represent the same first four kingdoms predicted in Daniel 2. Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. Daniel tells us that in the days of the Roman Empire, God will setup His Kingdom and He will give it to His Son after His resurrection.
Most of Daniel was written to reassure Jews that the Kingdom of God was still on track between Nebuchadnezzar and Jesus, despite the horrors that Antiochus IV Epiphanies and the Romans would inflict on the Jews.
Simeon, who blessed Jesus at his birth (Luke 2:25), could see it unfold before his eyes, he knew that Christ’s coming was imminent, and he was not put off by Jesus’ humble entry into the world nor by the Roman rule nor by the illegitimate reign of Herod. This is the power of biblical prophecy when handled correctly. It does not get bogged down in the trivia of world events.
This is the power of biblical prophecy when handled correctly. It does not get bogged down in the trivia of world events.
It’s important to note that this Roman kingdom is still here today, we are Roman from a biblical perspective. Our roots are Greek, Persian and Babylonian, we speak a refined Latin, our philosophy, science and politics comes from these western worldviews. Just a casual glance at The White House and a stroll down The Mall in DC is enough to convince anyone that we are very Roman.
Incidentally scripture does not mention another great civilization after Rome. The Byzantine (or Holy Roman) Empire was merely an extension of Rome, as is everything we now refer to as ‘Western’.
1.3 Daniel 8
Daniel’s vision of the Ram and Goat in Daniel 8 refers to some details of the Persian and Greek empires and how that transition of power would happen. In this chapter Daniel predicts the rise of who we now know as Alexander the Great and the spread of Greek power and cultural influence.
In this chapter Daniel also predicts the antichrist prototype whom we now know as the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who sacked Jerusalem in 167BC. Many antichrists have arisen since then.
Antichrist is a term that John uses in his first and second letters:
1John 2:18 “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.”
There are no specifics given here, we don’t know how many antichrists we are to expect, nether do we know how or where in the "last hour" we are. We may be close to the end of the end; we may be at the beginning of the end.
In Daniel 2 the picture of Greece is the torso and waist of the statue. That is because Greece was the pivotal and philosophically ‘reproductive’ empire. Greece, as we know, has had the most profound influence of the four civilizations on modern society, its cultural genetics are the most dominant, and its influence has conceived more ideas in politics, philosophy and science than any other.
1.4 Daniel 9
In Daniel 9 we see Daniel in prayer for the return of the Jews to their homeland. Daniel realized, in reading Jeremiah, that the 70 years of exile was almost up (Jer 25:11-12); and that redemption had been promised for Israel after that.
Appropriately his prayer is a fast and a humble repentance on behalf of Israel, as well as a request for mercy.
In answer to his prayer the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Daniel. and he explained how this redemption was to come using a term “seventy sevens” in verses 24-27.
It’s vital to remember that numbers in all apocalyptic scripture, including this portion of Daniel, are highly symbolic and intentionally vague. There is no indication that they are referring to specific weeks or years and there is every indication that they are not intended to be calculated into specific weeks or years. They represent something, it’s our job to find out what. Whenever something is symbolic, and apocalyptic writing is symbolic by definition, then the one thing the symbol cannot mean is it’s literal meaning.
It’s a little like Bilbo’s game of riddles with Gollum in the caves; at no point do the players suggest that the riddles mean simply their literal meaning. Buy definition that’s the one thing the cannot mean. So it is with biblical apocalypse.
Whenever something is symbolic, and apocalyptic writing is symbolic by definition, then the one thing the symbol cannot mean is it’s literal meaning.
So what are they, these seventy sevens? They are a symbol taken from the seven day week that represent an extended period that has reached its completion, exactly when that period begins and ends is intentionally vague. The sense we are supposed to get is one of we will know it when we get there. Seven represents completion because after 7 days the week is complete. Seventy of them represent an extended period coming to it’s end. Again, specific weeks or years are not being mentioned and there are no prizes for finding specific years in this text.
Gabriel’s language here is similar to Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question about whether seven was enough times to forgive someone (Matt 18:21).
Jesus’ answer of seventy times seven is surely not an indication that He intended Peter to keep a record and to stop forgiving at 490. Jesus is using this same symbol, the seven day week, to describe the fact that forgiveness ought to be both extended and complete.
Likewise Daniel is not suggesting that we are to count 490 weeks, years, months or seconds.
The symbol of seventy sevens itself explains the rest of the numbers in the passage, it functions like a key.
Sixty two sevens is just short of a totality, or just before a completion of an extended period. It may or may not be longer than the seventy sevens in literal terms, Gabriel is intentionally not being specific about the timing. I call this kind of language intentionally vague.
We know from this passage that something significant was to happen as this time of exile came to an end. Gabriel confirms Jeremiah's prediction and reassures Daniel.
And after that something even bigger is to happen close to the end of another extended period of time. But even that would not be the final end.
Gabriel’s message was that a “little anointed one”, a "little messiah" was about to come, a mini-savior at the end of this exile.
This is the Persian king Cyrus who freed the Jews to go back to Israel with a sweeping overnight conquering of Babylon the same night that the Babylonian Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall in Daniel 5.
The exiled Jews in Babylon went to bed slaves of Babylon and woke up as Persian subjects allowed to go home again.
Cyrus had enjoyed a very rich biblical prophetic history in Isaiah, remember that Isaiah was written before the exile. In Isaiah 45:1 Isaiah had named this redeemer of Israel as Cyrus, the only Old Testament figure to be called “Messiah”, or savior. He was no Jew but a Persian.
But this was a small salvation, they were “saved” geographically, but they were still sinners, not yet truly saved. It serves as a picture of real salvation as Cyrus serves as a picture of the real Messiah.
Through Isaiah 40-49 he continued asking the question, if Cyrus is a small savior, who then is he a picture of? Who is the big savior?
It’s not Israel, it’s not the remnant, they all need saving themselves, could it be this Cyrus? But no, he is merely a picture.
In Isaiah 53 we read that the savior is “The arm of the Lord”, it is God Himself.
So Daniel 9 is predicting 2 levels of salvation, with some very important details.
- A geographical savior for Israel would come in the form of Cyrus and for Daniel his coming was imminent.
- But after the Greeks, and during the Romans, the true Savior with eternal salvation would come.
- The temple, though it would be rebuilt, would not remain forever. It would be destroyed again.
Titus in AD 70 did what Nebuchadnezzar did to Jerusalem, but worse. The most brutal suffering ever of the Jewish people. After AD70 the Jewish temple and all its records were entirely destroyed.
- In Matthew 24 while predicting this catastrophe Jesus referred to this chapter in Daniel.
Why did Gabriel mention Christ coming at the 62nd seven, not 70th seven?
Because we are to understand that though this was an immensely significant salvation, history would nonetheless continues after it. After sin was dealt with, time would continue.
From a BC perspective this is a very significant detail! It would have been easy to assume that God’s final and complete dealing with sin would coincide with the end of time, but it does not.
There were precious few in Israel who got that nugget out of Daniel 9, although Simeon was probably one of them. It certainly made the questions about The Christ restoring the earthly Kingdom of Israel completely redundant.
It’s as if the Jews had lived so long on the much more specific details of Daniel 10 and 11 that they missed the less specific, but more significant truth of Daniel 9.
Are we in the same danger of treating Revelation in the same way; of craving prophetic candy from what is essentially non-specific prophetic reassurance?
Daniel 10 and 11 are a symbolic prophetic story of Israel as the fading and divided Greek Kingdoms of Ptolemy (south) and Seleucid (north) rose and fell toward the ultimate rise of the Roman Empire.
It it probably the most specific prophetic portion of scripture. When one considers that during that time God would be silent for 500 years and the remnant of Jews would remain a conquered nation, despite the Maccabean revolt (167-164BC), it’s easy to see why this portion of prophetic text is so specific, the Jews alive during the 500 yrs of silence would have a record to look at predicting every major political shift.
But in Daniel 11:36-40 the post-Greek story seems to break down, why?
The clearest explanation is that at that stage in chapter 11 Gabriel is no longer referring to the post Alexander Greek kingdoms, but it is instead speaking less specifically about the Romans.
Daniel 12 is a summary prophesy of salvation and judgement, or the 1st and 2nd comings of Christ, all wrapped together in one prophetic picture.
So then what about the 7 years tribulation at the end of time but before the millennial reign of Christ, and the secret rapture of believers either before, during or after the tribulation?
This question is important because it is such a popular subject. It’s cause has been taken up by many authors.
In order to understand this view we must look at its history. It was not a view held by anyone before the early 1800’s.
Imagine being a Christian in England during the French Revolution in 1789, seeing atheists like Rousseau and Voltaire take centre stage, watching the king of France get executed in the the violent uprising of the bourgeois. Followed by the rise of Napoleon, and Waterloo in 1815.
The political threat was immense and not everyone responded favorably to it. Some, like Wilberforce and the Quakers fortified by faith, vision and obedience, took on some of the central evils of the time and conquered them, but not everyone did.
During this time In England & Ireland there were prophetic conferences held to try and interpret the times in the light of biblical prophecy. None of these conferences had much representation of Greek or Hebrew scholars, and their interpretations relied heavily on the popular mood of the time and particular interpretations of the Authorized version of the Bible.
JN Darby’s interpretation from the late 1820’s has proven to been the most influential of these views. In America Scofield, (via Moody) interpreted Darby’s theories into his footnoted bible, and so entrenched Darby’s views into American Christian culture. Darby’s theory has grown into what we now refer to as American Dispensationalism, all based on one very shaky interpretation of two verses in Daniel 9.
Darby’s theory has grown into what we now refer to as American Dispensationalism, all based on one very shaky interpretation of two verses in Daniel 9.
Darby’s interpretation was that in Daniel 9 the “Sevens” are weeks of years, so every “seven”, according to Darby, is meant to be understood as a literal seven years.
God, he suggested, wanted to restore Israel in 490 years. But because Israel rejected Christ the last 7 years would be removed from that time period and placed at the end of time.
He postulated that during that 7 year period, and before the final 2nd coming of Christ, a “secret” rapture of believers would take place.
After Darby, three main views emerged from his interpretation as to exactly where this secret rapture would fit in to the tribulation period. But all of the dispensational interpretations put the millennial reign of Christ immediately after His second coming, and a secret rapture some time in the seven years immediately before.
Revelation 4, it is often suggested, represents the secret rapture.
Since Darby’s interpretations a plethora of books have been written from a dispensational point of view trying to predict the outcomes of current events by finding symbols for them them in these prophetic texts.
So what is wrong with the Dispensational view?
- The biggest problem with dispensationalism is that it all hangs on a single dubious interpretation of Daniel 9:25&26.
In this apocalyptic writing style all is symbolic and not literal, especially things referring to periods of time. Given time periods are symbolic and intentionally vague in biblical apocalypse. It is an exceptionally creative way to be clear enough that the event is recognizable when it happens, but too vague to make detailed predictions before the event.
To make a set of numbers represent literal years is against all reasonable biblical interpretation of apocalyptic writing.
- The second issue is the idea that 7 years of time are to be removed and placed at the end of the age, there is no indication here or anywhere else in scripture that God intends to do that.
If it were true it would be a very subjective and uncharacteristic way for God to present His influence over history. It would be like a ‘time-hack’, as if God’s plan didn’t work so he had to stick and paste a makeshift plan over it.
The idea that two three and a half “times” in Daniel 7 and Daniel 12 represent these seven years is the exact same same error, making literal what is intended to be symbolic. If seven is complete then surely 3.5 is meant to symbolize half way complete. But even if they do represent these seven years, there is no indication anywhere that they are to be removed from the time of Christ and added to the end of the age.
Now if we were to agree that point one and point two are incorrect interpretations of scripture then the whole dispensational theory must be rejected, none of it has any basis anymore. But for argument’s sake…
- The third issue is that nowhere in scripture is a rapture indicated apart from the second coming of Christ. Every record of the rapture puts it simultaneous with the second coming and every record of the second coming is of it being undeniable, glorious, overpowering and very very obvious (1Th. 4:16-17).
A theory that relies on a secret rapture cannot be accurate.
In Matthew 24 Jesus indicates that it will come without warning, but when it comes no one will be wondering what just happened. Their focus will not be on their missing neighbor, but on the returning Christ!
- The fourth issue is that if Revelations 4 is the secret rapture event, then for us the rest of Revelations describing earthly events is irrelevant, since we won’t be here for it.
Any interpretation of scripture which makes other scripture irrelevant for a reader is a dubious interpretation.
- Fifthly there is surely a problem with an interpretation which suggests that Jesus’ only plan for redemption on the earth, the Church, will somehow fail.
Surely Satan is to fail at every point. He fails to prevent Israel, he fails to prevent the Christ from coming, he fails at the cross, and he fails at the 2nd coming.
How do we support a view that suggests that evil will be too strong for Jesus' church? The Church was not some man made stop-gap before the second coming, the Church is Jesus’ Kingdom. Jesus Himself said that "the gates of hell will not stand against her." (Matt 16:19)
There is little doubt that the Old Testament prophets indicate that the Church would be victorious, why would Revelation contradict it? And when one looks at it one finds that Revelation does not contradict the Old Testament at all.
- Then there are the years. Besides that there is no indication or president in scripture that these sevens are weeks of years as opposed to seconds, minutes or any other time period; they just don’t work out as precisely as they must do if the interpretation is correct. Where they miss the mark becomes increasingly difficult to explain, and it all gets enormously complicated and unreasonable.
- Lastly one has to look at the fruit of dispensationalism, the plethora of books following the same interpretation rules. It cannot possibly be that either Daniel or Revelation are meant for confidently finding specific nations in biblical prophecy after Rome; and then confidently finding another set when the first one is proven wrong.
It seems so terribly easy to do and so many have done it, and proved to be completely wrong; but biblical prophecy itself is not trying to be that specific.
It is not dealing with China, Russia, Iraq, Islam or even with the modern nation of Israel.
God never intended to give us a crystal ball for very obvious reasons. We only discredit ourselves and our faith in the eyes of the world when we misuse scripture this way.
A much better way to deal with dispensationalism is to start over without referencing it at all. To look at the scripture with good hermeneutics and without preconception and see what it says for itself. If we do that, I believe some good and surprising conclusions emerge. Let me reiterate:
- There will be great persecution, but there will also be great victory for The Church. However you interpret “the fullness of the Gentiles” it seems abundantly clear in Romans 11:25 that Israel will be the last of the nations to turn to Christ in large numbers.
- Jesus is coming back to earth one more time, in undiluted glory. At that time He will gather his own. His coming will be unannounced and unexpected to many, but it will not be secret. And there is no secret second coming before then besides through His Holy Spirit in the Church, the “mystery” revealed for those relationally minded enough to see it (Col. 1:26).
- There is to be a sustained, long term worldwide success for the Church, a Golden Age before Christ’s second coming.
- Daniel does not give us fine, minute details of the end times, and neither does The Revelation, and we should not expect them to.
A much better way to deal with dispensationalism is to start over without referencing it at all. To look at the scripture with good hermeneutics and without preconception and see what it says for itself.
What then about Jesus words about the end in Matthew 24?
2. Matthew 24
It is amazing how Matthew 24 is so often interpreted exactly opposite from what it actually says. I hear so many Christians saying (as they did in the 1820’s after a Darby prophetic conference) that the wars and the famines and earthquakes and tornadoes and such are "signs that the end is near".
In Matthew 24 Jesus says the exact opposite, He says that those things are signs that the end is not near. he also says that signs of the end are things to do with peace and prosperity, not war and disaster.
1 Thessalonians 5:3 tells us that when people are enjoying peace and security the end will come.
Matthew 24:6-8 “6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.”
These things are not the end, they are a beginning, He describes them as a birth. They may be the end of a pregnancy, but a pregnancy is much more than simply an end of a process, it is much more significantly a beginning.
A sign of the end is given in verse 14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Not only are the world events of war, famine, and natural disaster no indication of the end; the real indicators of the end are success, not disaster.
Not only are the world events of war, famine, and natural disaster no indication of the end; the real indicators of the end are success, not disaster.
Matthew 24 is very easily understood when one realizes that the disciples were asking Jesus two questions and He was answering them both in a very structured manner.
The first question was answered more specifically than the second because there are less specifics available to answer the second.
Jesus had just told the disciples that the temple was to be destroyed for a second time, as Daniel had predicted in Daniel 9.
In Matthew 24:3 they said this to Him: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” – These are two questions!
Jesus’ answer was first a warning not to be deceived by these ideas that calamity is a sign of the end.
These are two great questions, He was saying, and they are very different events. The end of Jerusalem, the end of Apartheid, the end of America, the end of Al Qaeda, whatever human establishment; is quite literally not necessarily the end of the world. This is a very sound biblical point of view.
Then He continued to answer the first question, about the fall of Jerusalem and the horror of that time for Jewish people when one stone of the temple would not be left on another (verses 9 to 35) . He answered them using the exact same Old Testament prophetic poetry that predicted this calamity in symbolic language: Joel 2:30-31, Isaiah 13:9-10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, Daniel 8:10. His warning about getting the signs of the end right is now all the more important, since this poetic language makes it easier to confuse the two events.
Don’t be confused. Jesus had just told his disciples that literal calamities do not indicate the end. Figuratively they indicate a time of destruction for Israel, a dreadful time.
These words came true about 40 years later in AD70 when Titus sacked Jerusalem. Speaking about this event Jesus answered the disciples first question, when will the temple be destroyed? Jesus said that for the kingdom of Judah is will be as if, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (v29) Because Jerusalem would be destroyed and many lives would be taken in the most brutal fashion.
It also stands to reason, that winter or being pregnant does not matter at the rapture, these are not the kind of things one worries about when one is being raptured off the earth. They are the kinds of things that would have been a real concern in Jerusalme in AD70.
And history tells us that the believers in Jerusalem heeded Jesus warning when they saw the signs in AD70, and ran for their lives when Titus marched on Jerusalem, and incidentally this happened in the Summer of that year, so I would have to assume that they also followed Jesus’ advice, and prayed.
Verses 32-35 are the dividing point between the two answers, Jesus tells them what they can and can’t know about the very end. This generation will still be around to witness the temple fall and the destruction of Jerusalem; but about that day (verse 36), now referring to His second coming, no one knows, not even the son.
The rest of Matthew 24 (verses 36 to 51) is dedicated to describing the second coming. In verse 37 Jesus compares Noah’s time with the second coming. The point of view is not heaven, but earth, so “the coming of the Son of Man” here refers to His second coming to earth.
The picture Jesus paints of the end times are ones of peace, not war. The whole tenant of the text is that people, even believers, won’t expect it to happen.
The challenge at the end will be in too much comfort, in remaining ethical in prosperity, to stay awake, not to stay alive.
The challenge at the end will be in too much comfort, in remaining ethical in prosperity, to stay awake, not to stay alive.
3. The Revelation
The Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style. Daniel was the first to write in this highly symbolic style, a style which has been copied extensively through the centuries.
The style, I believe, was meant to reveal the prophetic truth to the reader without being very specific. The word apocalypse or apocalyptic did not mean calamity, tragedy or disaster as it is taken to mean today. It simply means uncovering or revealing.
The word apocalypse or apocalyptic did not mean calamity, tragedy or disaster as it is taken to mean today. It simply means uncovering or revealing.
The book was never intended to be a complex and terrifying riddle of global catastrophe, accessible only to the very wise; impossible to solve. It was actually intended to simplify and reveal what will happen at the end.
It does this by symbolic representation and by giving us a less detail, less specific general view of events so that when they happen they will be recognizable. We are not supposed to guess the specific times and dates of the events. But we can at least see the sequence of the major events.
What is important is to remember that everything is allegorical and symbolic in Revelation, that nothing in this writing style is intended to make literal sense.
John Bunion did something similar with The Pilgrims Progress, but this is not a very common style. Our western minds are not well trained to think in this leteral, un-literal way, it takes a little bit of imagination and discipline to see it the way it was intended.
The style delivers to us a panoramic view which unfolds and is rendered perfectly clear and detailed in hindsight. A good, short summary of The Revelation is simply this: God’s complete victory in spite of great persecution.
In its structure The Revelation goes round and round the same theme eight times. Each time it begins again is like the changing of scene in a play; eight scenes therefore seven changes of scenery.
In each of the eight scene there are seven groups of seven focal points. So Revelation can be thought of as eight sevens.
The word “opens” is a clue to the change of scene.
Each group has 7 subjects and 7 objects…. Except the last one. It is seven subjects of a single object.
- The first is seven letters for seven churches (1:1-3:22).
- The second is seven seals and seven openings (4:1-8:1).
- The third is seven trumpets with seven warnings (8:2-11:18).
- The fourth is seven visions of seven persons (a woman, a dragon, a child, 2 beasts, the Lamb, Michael the Arc-angel) (11:19-15:4).
- The fifth is seven bowls with seven wraths (15:5-16:21).
- The sixth is seven words of seven judgements (17:1-19:10).
- The seventh is seven visions of seven triumphs (19:11-21:8).
- The eighth is seven glimpses of glory (21:9-22:21).
The eighth one give us seven views of a single thing.
It seems that seven is a very important number in this book, why then are there eight scenes?
Well if seven is the number of completion, taken from the seven days in a week, then 8 is surely the new beginning, confirmed by Rev 21:5 “Behold I make all things new“. The last scene is given to us as a glimpse of what life will look like after Judgement, after the second coming; in a completely new age.
What is the Millennium in Rev 20?
There are three views (four if you count dispensationalism) and they revolve around the binding of Satan in Revelation.
- The pre-millennial view sees Satan bound when Jesus comes to earth again. (dispensationalism is an extension of this view).
- The a-millennial view sees Satan bound at the cross. He is bound from preventing the gospel from going forward to the nations. According to this view we are in the millennial age.
- The post-millennial view sees Satan bound during, or just before, some 'golden age'. This age takes place before the second coming of Christ.
One thing apocalyptic writing does often give us, in terms of time, is sequence. We may not be given specific days, but we usually (though not always) are told in what order things will happen.
These three views can’t all be right, and they can’t all be wrong. In fact we are on very safe ground to assume that one, and only one, is the correct view. Why do I think it is the post-millennial view?
Before we look at that let’s just say that it’s OK to disagree about this and still love each other as Christian family, but it would be so much better if we agreed.
The way we build church, the way we evangelize and disciple people, and the way we interact with the world depends very much on how we expect this all to work out.
If we expect the Church, in the face of stronger and stronger opposition, to fall into greater and greater persecution we will operate very differently than if we expect the Church to enjoy more and more success in the battle against Satan even in the midst of persecution.
The Binding of Satan – Revelation 12 and Revelation 20
In Revelation 12 the woman represents Israel before the birth of her child and represents the Church after the birth. Jesus is represented by the child. Satan starts persecuting the church, as soon as Jesus is caught into heaven. In this picture Satan is “thrown down to earth” by which we are to understand that his power is reduced at the cross, but not completely.
In Revelation 20:2 we see Satan “thrown from earth to the pit” for a thousand years. A further reduction of his power and influence for an extended period of time. Therefore the binding of Satan in Revelation 20:2 is greater than that of Revelation 12 and they are two separate events.
Now in Revelation 19:11, between these two events of Satan’s binding, we see a great “riding forth” of the victorious Christ.
What is this great riding forth meant to symbolize? Is it the 2nd coming of Christ or is it the preaching of the Gospel?
Surely it must be the preaching of the Gospel. He is now going to conquer, through His Church, by evangelism and love. He is going to ride forth, beyond the borders of Israel to the uttermost parts of the eath. The second coming of Christ is still to come, the second binding of Satan that marks the beginning of the millennial reign is not at the time of the second coming but before it, and before this millennial reign. This riding forth signals a further reduction of power for Satan, but still it is only temporary. In Revelation 20:10 Satan is completely overcome and destroyed at the second coming of Christ and judgement.
I mentioned earlier that Satan surely is to fail at every point. He fails to prevent Israel, he fails to prevent the Christ from coming, he fails at the cross and he fails at the 2nd coming. Why would we we think the Church will fail?
The only reason we could think that The Church would fail to overcome Satan would be by accepting a dispensational view of the end times; increasing persecution coinciding with a decreasing success for the Church. According to a dispensational view of end times prophecy, it eventually gets so bad for the Church that Christ has to come and take them out of it.
But this view denies the predictions of success for the Gospel in the Old Testament prophets the Letters and here in Revelation.
The millennium is a result of the preaching of the gospel and the the binding of Satan, and surely must take place before Jesus’ second coming. It is the sustained success story of the Church. Not by politics, it will not be a world of Christian states by decree or law, not by economics, it will not be a financial revolution. This is revolution of unity, truth and love, in a word the Gospel.
There will be a plurality of belief at this time, not everyone will be saved despite the binding of Satan. But the Church will see sustained, worldwide success. All nations will not only be reached, high percentages will be saved. The world will enjoy peace and prosperity as never before. And Israel will finally turn to Christ (Rom 11:25).
That will be the sign of the end, at that time the second coming of Christ will be imminent.
Who knows how far we are from that event, It may not yet be very near, but things can change rapidly.
The millennium is a result of the preaching of the gospel and the the binding of Satan, and surely must take place before Jesus’ second coming. It is the sustained success story of the Church.
And, like all numbers in Revelation, the millenium is not to be unserstood as a literal 1000 years, but as an extended period of time. Probably multi-generational.
But wait… there’s more.
At the closing of the seventh scene one expects the story to end. Christ has returned, he has taken us with Him, Satan has been destroyed and Judgement is done. Then Revelation 21:9-27 starts up again. You think you’ve come to the end, but there is more. Heaven comes to a New Earth as we get to live with God.
To a degree this “city” has already come, we are able to go into it and go out of it again. We are able to invite others, and bring nations to the King in this Gospel age, this year of favor of our Lord.
One day it will come in all it’s fullness, and opportunities for evangelism and faith will disappear with it’s presence. One day the doors of the city will be shut.
In Luke 4:21 Jesus read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town.
In Isaiah 61:2 he stopped in mid sentence “…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,” and closed the scroll declaring the words to be fulfilled. But there’s more to the sentence: “…and the day of vengeance of our God;…”
Right now the “city” is open to all who would come in, but it is not very visible. It must be entered by faith. Our preaching, our loving, our giving; the power, enabling, and protection of the Holy Spirit, will succeed in all nations coming to Christ at some point in time, even Israel.
Let us preach while unsaved ears may still hear the sound of the Gospel.
I think that right now the world is waiting for a unified Church, not politically or denominationally but :…of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Phil 2:2
We are still some distance from that. A big hurdle for unity, I believe, is the way we handle our eschatology. Here are three steps I would like to see the Evangelical Church in the western world take:
- Let’s leave Israel’s politics alone, unless you plan to plant a church there. She is in need of apostles, preachers, evangelists, pastors and teachers like any other nation. But there is as much biblical precedent to protect and defend modern Israel politically as there was to wage crusades 800 years ago.
We have made this mistake before, God has not called us to establish or protect any modern political system or nation. He has called us to make disciples.
I’m not suggesting that we hate or condemn Israel either.
There is nothing wrong with patriotism until it tries to make itself equal with The Kingdom in a Christian’s heart. I know this is an offensive thought to many but it is the truth. Some of us believers still need to be weened off of the breast of our mother culture so that we can start to eat the meat from the table of The King. Colossians 3:1-2 “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
We are primarily citizens of The Kingdom of God, and it is a Kingdom of all nations: Romans 16:26. Galatians 3:8, Revelation 15:4
- Let’s stop reacting, and start pro-acting. It matters very much how we teach our kids to think. Doom, gloom and despair can overrun a household in the same way as it can overrun a stock market and a nation. I can find no biblical basis to teach our children that all they can expect is for things to get worse. And I can find every reason to teach them the opposite.
- Let’s have a thousand year vision for The Church. A favorite story I once heard is of an architect who was called to an Old English Neo-Gothic cathedral. The building had huge oak beams running down the middle as support and they were now 800 years old and had to be replaced.
As he was standing in the building scratching his head wondering where on earth he would get that kind of timber, the groundsman came along and they got talking. He explained the problem to the groundsman who just smiled and said, “come with me.”
They walked outside and the architect realised that they were in the middle of a huge grove of very old oak trees.
“These trees have been here since the building was erected,” said the groundsman, “they were planted so that there would be timber available when the beams needed replacing.”
That is the way we should be building churches today, except not with Oak Trees but with our children, physical and spiritual. We need to think 4, 8, 12 generation down the track.
What will this church, this city, this nation look like, what will it need, in 80, 100, 800 years? Let’s build it that way.
The truth is that we just don’t know when the millennium will begin, or perhaps has begun.
Lets plan like it’s still to start, lets live like it’s about to end.