Millennial match-up

Last week, I wrote that we’d be looking at the three main viewpoints Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. I’m sure many of you immediately thought: “pre-, mid- or post-.” (These are slang expressions for different views concerning the rapture. If you aren’t familiar with any of these terms, don’t worry; we’ll explain all of this in a couple of weeks.) But the rapture comes later in our study. There’s actually a bigger issue that has distinguished believers, and it has to do with the millennium.

“What’s a millennium?” you might ask. A millennium is simply a period of one thousand years. Remember Y2K and all the hysteria at the turn of the millennium, when we went from the 1900s to the 2000s? We went from one millennium into another. What does this have to with our Christian faith? Well, the Scriptures specifically refer to a thousand year period in Revelation 20:1-6:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.

There’s some very striking, strange imagery in this passage, and we’ll sort through much of it later. But what is the nature of this thousand year period? Christians have historically held to three different viewpoints regarding this millennial period and how it relates to the return of Christ:

Pre-millennial
In the first few hundred years in the history of the church, there were certain, shared beliefs about the return of Christ that were predominant among the early Christian believers. They believed that Jesus’ return will be dramatic and obvious to all. They believed that when he returns, he will usher all of us into a golden era of peace, harmony, health and prosperity. They believed that he will directly reign—on earth—over this kingdom, and that we (his followers) will somehow share in his reign. According to this view Christ returns before this golden age, or millennium, so it’s known as the premillennial view.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature and contains a great amount of symbolism [see Revelation: The story comes full circle], so there were differences of opinion as to whether this millennial period will be a literal thousand years or not. But everyone agreed that it will be a real and extensive period of time with Christ present and reigning on earth. At the end of this time, God will establish a new heaven and new earth, and humanity will enter eternity (Revelation 21-22). Christians who hold this view have generally interpreted certain passages from the Old Testament prophets as referring to this millennial period, such as Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, and 65:20-25.

Post-millennial
As you might guess, this is a belief that Christ will return after the millennium (hence the view is postmillennial). How did this view spread? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go beyond the teachings of Scripture and add our own speculative ideas. The premillennial believers began to do this, at times suggesting some fairly strange ideas. The premillennial view also tended to emphasize the place of Israel in end times prophecy, and this was a problem for some. As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, this Jewish emphasis was unappealing to many Christians. These factors likely encouraged some Christians to reject the predominant premillennial view.

Instead of the common understanding of the return of Christ, these believers stressed that the gospel is to be carried throughout the earth. They believed that, as Christians spread the gospel everywhere, the world will eventually be won for Christ (at least for the most part). They also believed that as society is influenced by the truth of Christ, its institutions will be transformed, and there will be real renewal of government, justice, education, commerce, etc. As culture becomes more and more Christian, humanity will gradually enter this golden, millennial age of general, universal well-being (which will not be a literal thousand years). When this period of peace and harmony reaches its zenith, Christ will return in triumph.

At first, this view seemed to be held by only a small number of believers, but as Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and then became a real power, the postmillennial view seemed to correspond to what was happening in history. The postmillennial view was adopted by most, and premillennialism was pushed to the fringes of the church. In the 19th century, with the heady successes of science and industry, and the optimistic feeling that humanity could now solve all the problems that had seemed so intractable, postmillennialism was again a perfect match. Many proponents of liberal theology also embraced the postmillennial view.

But then the realism of the 20th century came crashing in: two horrific world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, oppressive dictatorships, genocide, famine, pollution, political corruption at the highest levels. The postmillennial view with its optimistic expectations of a continually improving world society all but died out. But the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this view among certain groups of conservative (usually Reformed) Christians.

A-millennial
Those of you who love language may have already figured out the essence of this viewpoint. Let me show you what I mean. If something is moral, it’s good, right? If it’s immoral, that means it’s morally wrong. But if something is amoral, it means it doesn’t involve questions of right or wrong. When you decide whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, this is an amoral choice; it doesn’t involve a question of what is morally right or wrong. This is the way we use the word amillennial. Those who hold to an amillennial view don’t believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth. They believe that, between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, he reigns spiritually from heaven.

Beginning with early church teachers such as Origen, and later Augustine, many began to interpret biblical prophecies in a much less literal manner. They saw these prophecies as being fulfilled in a more spiritual, less concrete, way. (I’m using these descriptions in their popular sense, not as they’re used in academic theology.) For instance, they believed many of the Old Testament prophecies that seemed to be specifically intended for the people of Israel were actually fulfilled in the New Covenant people of God—the church. Because of this, they began to question the need for some “golden age” when God’s promises to the Jews would be literally fulfilled.

Many feel Augustine was the first to teach what would later be known as amillennialism. In much of church history, the amillennial viewpoint is often hard to distinguish from the postmillennial view. Neither believes that Christ will literally reign on earth for a thousand years. Both believe that when Christ returns he will immediately usher in the final age, universal resurrection and judgment, and our ultimate, eternal state. On the other hand, amillennial believers disagree with postmillennial Christians that the world will gradually become more and more Christianized.

After the disillusionment of the 20th century, many postmillennial believers adopted an amillennial perspective of the return of Christ. Today, most who are part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church are amillennial. Many who come from the older, mainline denominations (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are also amillennial, with a few postmillennial Christians here and there. Those who come from a free church, Baptist, Pentecostal or nondenominational tradition tend to be premillennial in their understanding of end times (although not exclusively so). Many premillennial Christians are even unaware that there are Bible-believing Christians who understand the return of Christ and the millennium differently than they do! They often don’t realize that the question of the timing of the rapture (pre-, mid- or post-)—which can be so consuming for the premillennial—is one that doesn’t really concern postmillennial or amillennial Christians.

This is just one blog post, and so I’ve had to be brief and even a little simplistic in the way I’ve described these views. There is much more rich detail for each of them, and if you’re interested I’d encourage you to do more reading on your own. A great place to begin is Millard Erickson’s excellent book A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (although I suggest skipping the first two chapters and beginning with chapter three). Hopefully, you haven’t been able to tell from this post which view I personally hold. This week, I want to just introduce these beliefs and where they came from. Next week, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the nature of the millennium and evaluating these three viewpoints.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up [see above]

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

By popular demand, this week I’m beginning a new series on the return of Christ. Lately, I’ve been receiving more questions on this topic than on any other, so we’re going to explore this a bit for the next few weeks. This kind of subject always makes me think of the old saying:

The main thing
is that the main thing
stays the main thing.

The study of the return of Jesus (and all the details that go along with it) is one very loaded topic. Christians have differing opinions on how this will all fit together, and we’re not shy about arguing for our favorite viewpoint. Sometimes these exchanges can get heated, and Christians have even cut off one another from fellowship because of different expectations concerning the end times. This is tragic. (If you haven’t yet read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) Especially when we consider how much the early disciples missed—or plain got wrong—about the first coming of Christ, I think it’s a little silly for us to think we now suddenly have a crystal clear perception of Christ’s second coming!

Now, that’s not to say we can’t gain real insights from the Scriptures regarding the last days. Not only can we study and learn about the vital truth of Christ’s return, we have an obligation to do so. We don’t want to neglect the precious expectation of Jesus’ arrival, and all the Bible has to teach us about it. But there’s plenty of room for humility and caution in studying and discussing these issues. And I would challenge all of us that fighting and quarreling about the return of the Prince of Peace is not a sign of spiritual maturity! We can discuss our differing viewpoints—and do so vigorously—without becoming divisive or hostile.

This week, we’re going to introduce this subject and lay the foundation for our coming studies. It’s easy for us to get so caught up with all the myriad details and questions regarding the end times that we forget the two most important facts about the return of Christ. Here’s the first one:


Jesus is coming back!

Especially for those of us who have been believers for a long time, we’re so accustomed to the idea that Jesus is returning we forget how profound this is. We don’t worship a mere concept, and the gospel story to which we’re devoted is not just an inspiring fable. We worship God who came to us in the flesh, and who will one day return to us. We are part of a grand story that has a definite beginning, and also a definite conclusion.

Throughout history, we’ve been heading inexorably toward this final culmination when Jesus returns and brings everything to beautiful, perfect completion and harmony. Not only we, but all creation is anticipating being finally free from everything that binds us:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.

Romans 8:19-23

Do we experience the sweetness of God’s Spirit in this lifetime? Absolutely! But do we also suffer and struggle? Yes, we do. Jesus himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows [John 16:33].” But when we face our own personal pains, or when we’re overcome by the injustices and horrors of this life, we can know it won’t always be this way. This life is not meandering aimlessly through time. It’s going somewhere, and so are we. To those who one day will see things especially terrifying, Jesus says (in Luke 21:28), “So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

This is why we refer to Christ’s return as our blessed hope. And ‘hope’ in the Bible isn’t just a fond desire (as in “Oh, I hope Jesus comes back someday”); it’s a confident anticipation of what we know will come. As sure as we know the sun will come up in the morning, even when the night seems so long, in the same way we know that one day the time will be now, and Jesus will be here.


We’re supposed to be ready!

If you study every place where Jesus teaches about his return, you’ll see him repeatedly emphasize two main points: (1) I’m coming back, so (2) You be ready. How are we supposed to be ready? Why, by knowing exactly how Israel fits into prophecy, who the 144,000 are, and what the mark of the beast looks like . . . right? No, I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he told us to be ready. We can lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the more we’re focused on the minute details of Christ’s return, the less we’re actually ready for him to come back.

Now, don’t be discouraged. We will delve into some of the intriguing questions tied to Jesus’ return. Next week, we’ll look at three main viewpoints that Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. (And some of you will be surprised by what those three viewpoints are.) But for now, I want you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a business owner. You have to go away on an important business trip, so you leave your crew with these instructions: “I’ve laid out training programs for each of you, and given you each your specific areas of responsibility. You have plenty to do, so keep working on your assignments until I get back, and then I’ll evaluate everything.”

What are you going to find when you come back? It could go either way, right? As soon as the boss is gone, the people might decide to enjoy unrestrained freedom. Do whatever they feel like. Why not? The boss won’t be back for a long time! Let’s have some fun! We can do our work later. And so you walk in to find pizza boxes scattered everywhere, music blaring, a keg right in the middle of your office, and your employees seeing who can jump from one desk to the next without spilling their drink. They’re all having a great time . . . but nobody’s doing what you asked them to do.

Or you could return to a group of people focused on doing their jobs. Sure, they have some fun now and then, and take a coffee break when they need it. They laugh easily, and even enjoy working together. But their main focus is on the mission you gave them. They’re determined to fulfill their purpose, to be who they were hired to be. As a returning business owner, which group would you want to find?

Now let’s look at it from our perspective. Remember when you were old enough for your parents to leave you at home unattended? (I know it may be harder for some us to think back that far!) Sometimes it felt as if they were going to be out all night. But then, inevitably, you’d see the headlights turning into the driveway. The moment of truth! How did we feel? It all depended on what was going on, right? We could casually greet our parents as they walked in, or we could frantically try to clean up in 30 seconds what took us hours to destroy. Going back to our work scenario, which group of employees do we want to be?

Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.

Luke 21:34-35

There’s a story you may have heard about Francis of Assisi. He was said to be planting a tree one day, and someone asked him, “If you knew the Lord was returning today, what would you do?” Francis stopped, thought about it, and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His life was in such balance that, at that moment, he was doing just what he should be doing.

I don’t know if this story is authentic or not, but it gives us a challenging picture. Our lives should be so well-ordered that if we suddenly learn Jesus is returning today, we won’t have to desperately try to accomplish what we should have been doing all along. Because we’re already busy doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re focused on the mission, keeping the main thing the main thing, being who Jesus called us to be. We’re prepared for the very moment everything in our lives has been anticipating: the return of our Lord.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing [see above]

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

Revelation: The story comes full circle

We often refer to being ‘fed’ by God’s Word. You could even think of the various biblical genres as different kinds of food. To me, the letters to the churches are like a thick, juicy steak, something you can really sink your teeth into. (If you’re a vegetarian, maybe you could compare it to a savory veggie lasagna.) Some of the psalms are almost the equivalent of a sweet, creamy ice cream sundae. On the other hand, the genealogies or chapters of laws and regulations are often more like lima beans or brussels sprouts; we know they serve a purpose and are good for us, but they’re not the most enjoyable thing to eat!

I compare studying the book of Revelation to eating a crab (or maybe an artichoke). Imagine going out with friends to a seafood restaurant that specializes in crab—but you’ve never eaten crab before. The smell is different but somehow appealing, and people seem to be enjoying eating it . . . but how in the world are you supposed to get into this thing and find the meat?! This is the kind of challenge we often experience with Revelation. The book is strongly compelling to many believers, even to brand new Christians. But it also creates a lot of confusion. Just how are we supposed to crack this book open?

Adding to our desire to get a handle on this book is a potential blessing described right in the book:

God blesses the one who reads the words of this prophecy to the church, and he blesses all who listen to its message and obey what it says, for the time is near.

Revelation 1:3

This sounds like a book we want to understand, doesn’t it? Thankfully, there are some basic facts about this book that help us sort out what it’s all about.

Apocalyptic
If you’ve been with us through the rest of this series on studying the Bible, you’ve seen different kinds of biblical literature that are probably familiar to you. We still have letters today, and also history, legal codes, poetry and even proverbs. We can relate to these scriptural genres. But the book of Revelation is a kind of literature called apocalyptic, and this is not as familiar to us. We no longer have apocalyptic literature being written today, but it was fairly common in the 1st century. So what exactly is it?

Apocalyptic writings claimed to reveal the secrets of what would occur at the end of time. The biblical book of Revelation is not only apocalyptic, but also prophetic. These weren’t just some strange visions that John somehow got a glimpse of, they were given to him by God for the purpose of communicating them to God’s people. But there is a common characteristic of apocalyptic writing that we have to be very aware of when we begin to read and study the book of Revelation:

Symbolic
Apocalyptic writing was always highly symbolic. Very little was written clearly and literally, but symbolism was used throughout these writings to communicate their message. That’s the nature of this kind of literature, and this is what we should expect when we read Revelation. Is this what we find?

In the first chapter of Revelation, we’re introduced to seven gold lampstands, which we discover represent seven churches. Seven stars represent the angels of these seven churches. It doesn’t take us long to see that this book is filled with symbols that represent something important, but we need to recognize that most of what we read in Revelation was not intended for us to understand literally. These vivid, colorful descriptions represent things that are very real, but the descriptions are meant to be symbolic.

If you search through Christian art from the Middle Ages, you can find paintings depicting Christ returning with a sword protruding from his mouth. But all biblical scholars recognize that this sword (Revelation 19:15) is not to be understood as a literal sword, but as a symbol or representation of the Word of God. If we aren’t trying to interpret everything in this book literally, we’ll avoid a lot of confusion. For example, some of you may have heard attempts to understand, as literal, the scorpion-like locusts in Revelation 9:1-12 with gold crowns on their heads, faces like humans, hair like women and teeth like a lion. If we try to hard to interpret something literally that is meant to be symbolic, the results can be pretty silly—and we can miss the whole point of the elements in the prophecy.

This is challenging for many of us, because we’re accustomed to understanding the Bible literally. While the Bible includes metaphors and colorfully poetic expressions (as do most writings), everything indicates that the events recorded in Scripture are to be understood as actual, literal events. As a rule of thumb, we assume what we read in the Bible is literal unless something in the text indicates otherwise. In other words, it means what it says (just as we do today). With apocalyptic writing such as the book of Revelation (and parts of the Old Testament prophetic books such as Daniel), we have to turn this rule completely around: In Revelation we must assume that what we read is symbolic unless something in the text indicates otherwise.

Tied to the Old Testament
John (the author) makes specific references to the Old Testament over 200 times in the book of Revelation. The imagery he uses is almost always drawn directly from the Old Testament. This means the more familiar we are with the Old Testament, the easier it will be for us to understand the book of Revelation.

Not written in chronological order
You may have noticed there are many series of seven in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters, we see seven churches. In the rest of the book, we find seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc. If you’ve ever tried to fit all of these into chronological order, you may have become very confused. Here’s an example of why this is a problem. If you read in Revelation 6:12-17, you’ll see a description of what happens when the sixth seal is broken:

I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places.

Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

What is this describing? It certainly sounds like the very end, doesn’t it? But if we’re trying to fit Revelation into chronological order, we have a real problem because we still have seven trumpets and seven bowls to go. If you read the end of the series of seven trumpets (Revelation 11:15-19) and the series of seven bowls (16:17-21), they also sound like the very end. How do we make sense of this?

If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, this actually shouldn’t be so confusing. We often see in Scripture what the scholars call “recapitulation.” For instance, do you realize we have three accounts of creation in the first part of Genesis? What does the first sentence of the Bible say? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s one complete (albeit very brief) account of creation. The rest of chapter one tells us the story again, this time describing in greater detail how God created and focusing primarily on the story from the perspective of the earth. Chapter two “recapitulates” the story, this time zooming in on the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve.

The book of Revelation is doing something similar. When we study the seven seals, there is very little that ties these descriptions to the end of time until we get to the sixth seal. The seven trumpets seem to zoom in much closer to events of the very last days. They also grow in intensity, from the seals affecting one-fourth of the earth to the trumpets affecting one-third.  The seven bowls not only zoom in even closer to the time of the end, but there are amazing parallels between the trumpets and the bowls: how they affect the earth, seas, water, living things, the sun, bringing darkness, ushering in a great final battle, etc. And the bowls intensify from affecting one-third to everyone and everything.

This is just a brief taste of the parallels and patterns you’ll find in the book of Revelation. But if you don’t try to fit everything into some chronological order, you’ll avoid a lot of confusion and unnecessary exegetical gymnastics (that is, trying to fit square pegs into round holes to make everything fit).

The scope of the book
Throughout much of the history of the church, Bible scholars have debated the intended range and focus of this book. Some have felt that Revelation gives us only a very broad, generally encouraging theme of struggle and suffering, but ultimately of God triumphing. Others have protested that there seems to be much more rich detail in this book than would be required for a general, encouraging message of “God wins.” Some have thought what is described in Revelation is prophecy regarding events that have already occurred, while others see Revelation as being entirely fulfilled in our future.

More and more, students of Scripture are seeing Revelation as being, in a sense, all of the above. It is undeniably a figurative depiction of the struggle and suffering of God’s people and the ultimate judgment and triumph of God. And we can see where certain sections may very well point to things that have already occurred in history. But it seems just as clear that much of the prophecy in this book awaits fulfillment and, as we learned last week, prophecy often has a partial, immediate fulfillment and a final, complete, ultimate fulfillment.

Full circle
One of the most important things for us to do when reading Revelation is to see it from a ‘big picture’ perspective, in light of God’s master plan as revealed in Scripture. When we see Revelation in the context of the rest of the Bible, we find more wonderful parallels.

Genesis begins with creation. Revelation ends with new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. The first chapter of Genesis shows God systematically bringing order into chaos. In Revelation, we first see God removing his order and maintenance from his creation and allowing the encroaching chaos free reign (in essence, undoing much of Genesis 1), and then reestablishing his perfect and beautiful order. We go from the Tree of Life restricted from humanity in the Garden, to the Tree of Life freely given in the new Jerusalem.

Most importantly, we go from separation from God in Genesis—with the corresponding curse, decay and death—to complete restoration and reconciliation in Revelation. Heaven and earth as one (Revelation 21:3-5):

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said,

“Look,
I am making everything new!”

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle [see above]

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

So, you decided to read the Bible straight through from the beginning. (This isn’t the only way to read it, or necessarily the best. But for some reason we all seem drawn to read Scripture this way from time to time.) You slogged through all the genealogies and laws. You read carefully the historical stories and poetic writings.  And then you arrive at the prophets. A verse here and there may sound familiar, but most of it makes you wonder: What in the world is this all about?

If there’s any part of the Bible that’s difficult to simply pick up, read and understand, it’s the prophetic books. While there are brief snatches of history in some of the prophetic books, they are few and far between. This leaves most of what you’re reading without any immediate context. Those of you who’ve been reading our Taking Root studies for awhile will remember that we have a handy tool for just such times. A good study Bible will explain who the author was, to whom they were writing and why, and what the historical setting was. Without this background information, we’re not going to be able to understand what these books are all about. Even with this background information, there are a few additional tips that can be helpful when reading the prophets:

Historical setting
This week we’re discussing the Old Testament prophetic books. (We’ll explore the New Testament book of Revelation next week.) So these books are focused primarily on God’s interaction with the people of Israel. When Solomon died and his son Rehoboam assumed the throne, the nation of Israel was divided into two separate kingdoms: the northern nation of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Very quickly, Israel fell into idolatrous worship of false gods. God eventually allowed them to be completely destroyed by the Assyrians.

Judah continued to be ruled by the line of David, and enjoyed the presence of the Temple in Jerusalem. As with Israel, the history of Judah also includes decline and idolatry, but interspersed with periods of repentance and reform. Their downward spiral took longer than their brothers and sisters to the north but they also were eventually conquered. Their beautiful capitol city and Temple were destroyed, and most of the surviving people were taken captive to Babylon. 70 years later, they were allowed to return to their home, rebuild the Temple and eventually restore the city of Jerusalem.

Confronting his people
Three weeks ago, we learned about the psalms in the Bible. We saw how the psalms are prayers to God, not always God’s words to us. But the prophetic books are very different. The prophets were people whom God specifically called to be his official messengers to his people. When they spoke their prophecies, they were speaking the words of God himself; they were quoting him verbatim. This is why we repeatedly see in the prophetic books some variation of the phrase: “These are the words of the LORD . . .”

Much of what God had to say to his people was direct confrontation:

The LORD gave another message to Jeremiah. He said, “Go to the entrance of the LORD’S Temple, and give this message to the people: ‘O Judah, listen to this message from the LORD! Listen to it, all of you who worship here! This is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says:

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the LORD’S Temple is here. They chant, “The LORD’S Temple is here! The LORD’S Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again? Don’t you yourselves admit that this Temple, which bears my name, has become a den of thieves? Surely I see all the evil going on there. I, the LORD, have spoken!

“‘Go now to the place of Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore my name. See what I did there because of the wickedness of my people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says the LORD, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name, the Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave you and your ancestors. And I will send you out of my sight into exile, just as I did your relatives, the people of Israel.'”

Jeremiah 7:1-15 

As you read through the prophetic books, you’ll also notice that sometimes God gave the people the opportunity to repent and avoid the judgment awaiting them. But other times, he let them know judgment was coming and that he would not relent. And it’s not just his own people whom he confronts; he has quite a bit to say to the surrounding nations as well.

Revealing the future
This is where it gets a little tricky. We’re used to assuming that every prophecy telling about the future is revealing our future. But that’s usually not the case in the Old Testament prophetic books. Much of the material from the prophets is simply God confronting his people and letting them know what awaits them if they don’t return to him. We also find prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ sprinkled throughout the prophetic books. For us, these prophecies are all concerning the past—although they still teach us about how God interacts with his people, and they serve to validate the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Yet there are also important passages that point to the very end of history and the culmination of all things in Christ. One of the interesting things about the prophetic books is that they often include prophecies regarding both what is past (for us) and what is still present—but the prophecies are in the same immediate context and not always easy to tell apart! Have you ever seen a mountain range in the distance while you’re traveling? It can seem as if two mountains are right next to each other, but when you get closer, you realize that a huge distance separates them. This is the kind of challenge we have when interpreting the prophetic books.

To see a great example of this, compare the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2 with Jesus’ reading of this prophecy in Luke 4:16-21. Do you notice how Jesus reads all of the prophecy except the last line: “. . . and with it, the day of God’s anger against his enemies”? Why is that? Because the last line is referring to when Christ comes in judgment, and this wasn’t yet occurring during his first coming.

Two authors
Another thing to remember about Scripture is that it actually has two authors—the human author and the divine Author. This means that the Author (Holy Spirit) could include meaning that the author (human) wouldn’t have understood. We can reach back to the psalms for a perfect example of this. When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Jews would have immediately recognized this as a quote from Psalm 22. What’s amazing is that David wrote this psalm hundreds of years before crucifixion existed as a form of execution. Yet when you read the psalm he wrote, the similarities to the crucifixion of Jesus are astounding:

Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the LORD?
Then let the LORD save him!
If the LORD loves him so much,
let the LORD rescue him!” . . .
My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.

Psalm 22:7-18 

There is nothing in this psalm that indicates David was speaking of someone other than himself. Obviously, he was writing figuratively about what his enemies were doing to him. But the language he uses is overly strong for what he was experiencing; it points beyond the immediate circumstance to something greater. And we see the fulfillment in the death of Christ. The Holy Spirit inspired David to write something that—though it had real meaning to him at the time—included a deeper meaning that David couldn’t have grasped then. (In another place, when Daniel asks for an explanation of the vision he’s seen, he’s essentially told, ‘Never mind, this isn’t for you’ [Daniel 12:5-13].)

Most of the prophecies we read in Scripture have some kind of fulfillment in relatively close proximity to the time of the prophecy. But as you read these prophecies, watch for elements that don’t fit, that were not completely fulfilled. Isaiah 13 is a prophecy about the destruction of Babylon, but as you read it you’ll see language that actually describes a final judgment at the very end. Many prophecies have an immediate, partial fulfillment but await(ed) an ultimate fulfillment either at Christ’s first coming or his return.

Ultimate restoration
The prophecies we read reveal a pervasive corruption and stubborn rebellion against God by his people. Through the prophet Isaiah (65:1-2), God said to them:

I was ready to respond, but no one asked for help.
I was ready to be found, but no one was looking for me.
I said, “Here I am , here I am!”
to a nation that did not call on my name.
All day long I have opened my arms to a rebellious people.
But they follow their own evil paths
and their own crooked schemes.

Through prophecy after prophecy, God warned them what was coming. But the people stubbornly wouldn’t listen. So God disciplined his people by allowing them to be conquered and humiliated. Jerusalem was laid waste, and the Temple was destroyed. But the good news is that he didn’t utterly reject them. Even while he was telling them of their impending judgment, he encouraged the people that he would one day restore them:

But this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I will certainly bring my people back again from all the countries where I will scatter them in my fury. I will bring them back to this very city and let them live in peace and safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. . . .

In the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD.

Jeremiah 32:37-38, 33:10-11

But the prophecies of restoration and healing go beyond what God did for the people of Israel:

People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
and we will walk in his paths.”
For the LORD’S teaching will go out from Zion;
his word will go out from Jerusalem.
The LORD will mediate between nations
and will settle international disputes.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.

In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together;
the leopard will lie down with the baby goat.
The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion,
and a little child will lead them all.
The cow will graze near the bear.
The cub and the calf will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like a cow.
The baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra.
Yes, a little child will put its hand
in a nest of deadly snakes without harm.
Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,
for as the waters fill the sea,
so the earth will be filled
with people who know the LORD.

Isaiah 2:3-4, 11:6-9

This isn’t just good news for the ancient people of Israel; it’s the wonderful hope for all of God’s people. This is the future we can all anticipate. Just as God disciplines and judges, so he will heal and restore.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back [see above]

Revelation: The story comes full circle