Our local church has been asking so many questions about end-times and the Bible it became necessary for me to teach on the end times. So, the elders and I decided the best way is for me to walk through the book of Revelation. Before we get into Chapter 1, verse 1, and begin walking through the text, I will take two weeks to introduce our conversation and the book of Revelation. In this introduction, we will consider the lenses through which people read Revelation. Next week, we will introduce book of Revelation and its genre, apocalyptic literature.
Many different viewpoints
Revelation is the most widely interpreted book of the entire Bible. At the beginning of his series on John’s Revelation, Voddie Baucham claimed it the book most church members want their pastors to walk through but most pastors do not want to walk through. It is a book of symbols that people can make out to mean anything they desire. Anyone who has done much research or spends any time listening to people talk about prophecy might have heard claims concerning the mark of the beast and the identity of an antichrist. People have asserted that the mark could be barcodes, credit cards, or RFID tags. People can do numerical gymnastics to make the number 666 mean anyone they desire including: Nero, Domitian, Hitler, Stalin, Obama, Trump, or Barney the Dinosaur. There are many interpretations that do not agree and are irreconcilable with one another.
There are four lenses through which people normally read the book of Revelation. These lenses are worldview presuppositions that color people’s reading of Scripture. They interpret the details in Revelation to fit their presuppositions concerning end-times. The most popular lenses in our own day are the futurist and historicist lenses. The futurist believes anything that can be construed as end-times prophecy in the Bible is strictly future. When reading Revelation, it means everything from Revelation 4:1 onward is strictly prophecy about what will take place in the future. They interpret Revelation to fit a future 7-year tribulation and literal millennial kingdom on the earth. This presupposition belongs almost exclusively to dispensationalists. The historicist believes end times events are currently unfolding. Their presupposition leads them to try determining how current world events match John’s Revelation.
Less common are the preterist and idealist presuppositions, which are held by more reformed traditions. The idealist reads prophecy for the timeless ideals it presents. He or she interprets John’s Revelation to see what Scripture has to say to those living in the midst of suffering or tribulation throughout time. The preterist presupposes that all end-times prophecy in Scripture has already been fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Many preterists consider themselves parital-preterists because they believe in a literal, future millennial kingdom or at least that some prophecy has not been fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation. Idealists and preterists don’t normally interpret John’s Revelation to fit a future, 7-year tribulation or millennial kingdom—they are either amillenial (no earthly millenial kingdom) or postmillenial (the millenium was on the earth in the generation present at Jesus’s incarnation).
We can see the breadth of belief and the diversity of interpretation concerning John’s Revelation, I want to drop some names you might recognize and show you where they land, or landed before they went home, on their end-times views.
- John MacArthur refers to himself as a leaky dispensationalist and lands somewhere between historicist and futurist. He believes in a literal, future 7-year great tribulation and future millennial kingdom on this earth.
- Adrian Rogers was a dispensationalist and futurist.
- R. C. Sproul was a preterist who believed all of Revelation’s prophecy was fulfilled under the Roman Emperor, Nero.
- David Jeremiah lands between historicist and futurist. He is popular for hosting a sign of the times segment in which he tried to show how world events line up in the timeline of end-times prophecy.
- John Piper is a partial preterist who believes a millennial kingdom will be placed on this earth before the end of this age.
- Voddie Baucham is an idealist and preaches Revelation as a book of principles.
- D. L. Moody was an early dispensationalist and landed between historicist and futurist. Dispensationalism, along with historicism and futurism was popularized though his bible college.
- Though he did not have the term yet, Charles Spurgeon was a partial preterist.
- Martin Luther also predated the end-times debate, but was a strict historicist in his application of Scripture. He considered the pope to be the antichrist.
- John Calvin didn’t even consider the question about end-times important enough to address widely enough to assign him a lens.
All of these men have had great impacts on Christian belief and practice. All of them have believed Scripture divinely inspired, authoritative, and sufficient. Yet, of the ten men, ten different specific end-times opinions are present. Though there is some agreement on the meaning and application of John’s Revelation, each man differs from the others on both minor and major details.
There is a danger when reading any Biblical text, not only Revelation. We tend to read the Bible through our presuppositions. I am not going to approach John’s Revelation through any of the four lenses I have described. Instead, I want to look at the book through a fifth lens—the Bible. Not to say that the men I listed did not arrive at their conclusion through a careful study of Scripture. I am not in a position to make that sort of claim. All I know is that doctrine isn’t the lens through which we should read the Bible. The Bible is the lens by which we should develop doctrine. Sound doctrine is shaped by the Bible not our interpretation of the Bible by our doctrines. So, I will be considering authorial intent, original audience, context, and cotexts. We can’t begin as preterists or futurists; we simply begin by trying our best to understand what John means for his original audience. In other words, we read Revelation like we read other books in the Bible. As we walk through Revelation, we will realize which viewpoints, if any, are incompatible with sound teaching. God’s word will shape our belief.
In my own journey, I started as a futurist because most people in the church which I grew up were futurists. As I studied Scripture into adulthood and into my first years at the university, I became a historicist. After that, I became more a partial preterist, and I teeter between preterism and partial preterism. Even as I have prepared for this series, I am in danger of changing my mind on some of the more evident details in my theology. I am still on my journey, and I hope it never ends. I hope you also want to continue to grow in your own understanding. May we never become dogmatic in our doctrine because dogma cripples growth.
Why should we care?
Why should we care about end-times doctrine? The best reason is: God included end-times prophecy in His Bible. He gave it to us because He wants us to know it. More importantly, He wants us to know Him through what He has revealed. Second, our view of end-times informs our opinion about who Christ is and what Christ is doing. Third, our end-times viewpoint impacts the way we live today.
On another note, people use end-times prophecy in the Bible as a reason to reject Christ. After all, Jesus predicted the generation before Him would not pass away until His own end-times predictions were fulfilled (Matthew 24:34). Since people interpret the text in such a way that the antichrist hasn’t yet been revealed and Christ has not yet returned, Jesus must have been wrong. If Jesus was wrong, why would anyone ever believe He was the Messiah? Or God? So, our interpretation of end-times statements in the Bible causes our worldviews to either be coherent or not. People notice incoherence. Unhealthy end-times views actually push people away from Christ, and we become their hindrance to the Gospel.
What if I disagree?
If we disagree concerning our interpretation of the Bible with regard to end-times events, there is no condemnation for us. We are part of Christ’s body if we hold the essentials in common—Christ will return, judge the world, establish His kingdom on the earth, and dwell with His people forevermore. If we disagree about rapture, parousia, the Mellenium, the Antichrist, or any possible dates, there is no reason to kurfuff. These are peripheral issues.
Next week, we will introduce the book of Revelation and begin walking through the text. I am excited about getting to know Christ more together through His word.