My theology was cultivated in the soil of dispensational premillennialism. In the early days of my ministry life, this was a test of fellowship – if you didn’t hold a dispensational premillennial hermeneutic, I would not have wanted to do ministry with you. It was as if dispensational premillennialism was on par with the substitutionary atonement of Christ.
Many Christians have separated ways over varying interpretations of eschatology, leading more than a few Christians to avoid the prophetic scriptures all-together. Some evangelical believers remind me that that John Calvin never wrote a commentary on the New Testament book of Revelation, as if that legitimized their avoidance of eschatology.
Because prophetic themes permeate the biblical text, we must not neglect eschatology. We fail to teach and preach the whole counsel of God if we avoid prophecy. Because Christians hold competing interpretations of prophetic texts does not mean those texts should be avoided. The answer is found in learning to hold our views with grace.
A major discussion in eschatology is our understanding of the millennium. There are three major millennial views which interpret the 1000-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20.
Premillennialism holds that Jesus will return to earth before the millennium begins – a literal 1000-year reign of Christ on earth. Among the many variations of premillennialism, two stand out: “historic” and “dispensational.” The main difference is that historic premillennialists see a one-stage second coming of Christ, whereas dispensationalists see a two-stage second coming – the rapture of the church followed by Christ’s return to establish his earthly kingdom.
Amillennialism, sometimes referred to as the “realized (or Gospel) millennium” believes that Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and that the first resurrection mentioned in Revelation 20 is a spiritual one occurring at the moment of regeneration-when an individual places his or her faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The 1000 years mentioned in Revelation 20 symbolizes Christ’s present heavenly reign, after which He shall return.
Postmillennialism holds that the Christian faith will permeate the world, gradually ushering in a golden age on earth – the millennium. Like amillennialists, postmillennialists believe the 1000-year reign in Revelation 20 will occur before Christ’s return.
In keeping with the nature of apocalyptic writing (the N.T. book of Revelation is apocalyptic), amillennialists and postmillennialists do not see the 1000-year reign as being a literal 1000 years, but rather a long period.
In some respects, historic premillennialism, amillennialism and postmillennialism are similar. All three see a one-stage second coming of Christ. Dispensational premillennialism is quite different in that it maintains a strict separation between Israel and the Church – two separate peoples with two separate programs. Unlike historic premillennialists, amillennialists and postmillennialists, who generally demonstrate flexibility with one another, dispensational premillennialists tend to separate from those who disagree in the details. I was among the separationist-prone dispensationalists.
It was in 1976, while rubbing shoulders with British one-step-away-from-liberal amillennialists that the Spirit of God began chipping away my youthful arrogance. Imagine my shock at discovering many godly amillennialist pastors who held the Scriptures in high esteem. They were hardly teetering on the brink of liberalism. I discovered that equally devoted Christians can hold a number of eschatological views.
Somewhere along the way I gave up dispensationalism while retaining a premillennial outlook. I also discovered that one’s millennial view does not significantly impact daily life.
This is not to say that eschatology is unimportant, or that all views are equally valid. Every view cannot be right and Christians ought to wrestle with prophetic texts, coming to conclusions, but conclusions that are held with grace and humility.
David Cooke, a personal friend and former colleague in ministry, with whom I often discussed eschatology, utilizes five interpretive principles when studying biblical prophecy. I offer them to you as he gave them to me.
CONTEXT. We must pay careful attention to the context in which a prophecy occurs. Firstly, there is the cultural-historical context of the writer’s day and age. Secondly, there is the redemptive-epochal context of how God was dealing with His people in that particular time. Thirdly, there is the narrow literary context of the writer’s book. Fourthly, there is the broader literary context of all the writer’s books, all the books of that particular biblical genre, and all the books of the Bible as a whole. We must discover how each prophecy “fits in” to its context and how the context shapes the form and meaning of the prophecy.
PARALLELS. We should examine other prophecies and Bible texts that seem to relate to or parallel the prophecy in question. The principle is: “Scripture interprets Scripture.” A prophecy may be represented very differently in different times, but it will speak the same fundamental message.
RELEVANCY. We observe that some prophecies are relevant to certain subjects, themes, and topics in particular, while others are not. We must search the Scriptures to discover where certain prophecies are given to explicitly address a particular subject. If we go to a prophecy and apply it to a subject that it was not intended to address, then we have distorted the Scriptures.
PROGRESSION. Since the Bible is a progressive revelation, earlier (older) prophecies need to be interpreted in light of later (newer) prophecies. Specifically, Old Testament texts need to be understood in light of New Testament teaching and not vice versa. The New Testament provides the interpretive framework for discerning the true meaning of Old Testament prophecy.
FAITH. Most important of all is to have personal, saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Prophecy is a spiritual matter that requires spiritual discernment. Without the Holy Spirit operating in our hearts, we will be unable to grasp the essential truth of any prophecy. All interpretation must be done in faith and with prayer.
The importance of these principles is illustrated in the prophecy of Amos regarding “raising up the tabernacle of David” (Amos 9:11-12). Written prior to the Assyrian invasion of 722 BC, Amos describes a glorious Israel inhabiting a land of supernatural fruitfulness and ruling over elect Gentiles from around the world. Reading this prophecy without any further clues might lead one to imagine a future theocratic kingdom of Israel, replete with a temple, priestly service, and a king ruling the nations.
However, as the NT church began to grow, James declared to the council meeting in Jerusalem that the flood of Gentiles coming to faith was in fact the fulfillment of Amos’s prophecy (Acts 15:12-17). It seems that David’s raised tabernacle is nothing less that the NT Kingdom of God comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles.
By all means read and study prophecy. Come to conclusions. But hold them in graceful humility.