SERIES ON BIBLICAL ESCHATOLOGY
No. 1 “Introduction”
Tonight we begin a new evening series, one of those series that is possible to preach in the evening service, but which would be impossible if I had only the morning service. I want you to know that I am very grateful to God for the way this congregation turns out on Sunday evenings. I doubt you fully appreciate how few evening services remain that are so well attended. There are certainly very few in the PCA. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, though we are a mid-sized church, our evening service attendance is among the top four or five in the denomination. What this means for me, of course, is that I am on my mettle to do good work in preparation for this service and the consequence of that is that I have learned a great deal I might not have learned or not have learned so well if I had not this evening service to prepare year in and year out. It has been a great blessing to me and I hope to you. Think of the subjects we have considered in the evening that would have been very difficult to make a course of sermons if only the morning service were available: a long series on the Bible’s doctrine of affliction, a series on Christian ethics, the entirety of the books of Samuel and Chronicles, a lengthy series introducing our new way of taking the Lord’s Supper, and another on how to read the Bible. In some ways, this series will be more teaching than preaching, though I hope that “proclamation” will be found in every installment and that the series as a whole will strike all of you as a bringing home to your minds and hearts the truth of God’s Word so that you might not know it merely, but live it. That must always be our goal: to believe and then to obey.
Now the term eschatology itself is composed of two Greek words: eschatos, an adjective meaning “last,” and logos, a noun meaning many things, but in this case, “subject,” “matter,” or “doctrine.” So, eschatology is the “doctrine of the last things.” Ordinarily, in the Christian mind the word is thought to refer to those events still in the future. In relation to the individual, eschatology would concern the individual’s death, his situation after death or in what is called the “intermediate state,” his eventual resurrection, and so on. With regard to the entire world, eschatology is ordinarily taken to refer to the events at the end of time: unquestionably the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the last judgment, hell and heaven, but also the much debated questions of the tribulation and the millennium.
For many American believers, raised on such end-time scenarios as were made popular in Dispensationalist sermons, books, and movies and which are being made newly popular in the Left Behind series of books that are selling in the millions of copies, eschatology was primarily concerned with how the world would end. In its ordinary usage, “eschatology” was a word to start an argument with. Your eschatological position (by which was usually meant your view of the rapture and the millennium) identified you with some believers and distinguished you from others. This often was not a friendly disagreement. Eschatology separated believers from one another as surely as differences about sovereign grace or baptism separated believers from one another. One of the reasons that there exists an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian Church in America is that, long ago in 1936 and 1937, amillennialists and premillenialists had a falling out in what was then a single church. Interestingly, 65 years later, different views of the millennium are no longer nearly so controversial in our church and all three primary views find numbers of supporters among ministers, elders, and people in our church, and among those with definite opinions only some of them preach them or think them of any great consequence to one’s understanding of the Bible. Times have changed. For the better or not is a question we will try to answer later in this series. [By the way, I have already used some technical terms such as Dispensationalism or premillennialism and amillennialism. I will define them later, so don’t worry if your not sure what they mean. On the other hand, if you are among those evangelicals who never tire of discussing these questions, be advised that sorting out the millennial question is going to take quite a small portion of the Sunday evenings I plan to devote to this series of studies.]
But the differences of viewpoint, while not nearly so controversial in Presbyterian circles, still leave their mark on the landscape of American evangelical Christianity. One of the reasons why there are several conservative Baptist churches with Calvinist leanings is because some of them are Dispensational – and not only hold firmly to that particular view of the future but consider it a test of fellowship – and some other such churches are very determinedly not Dispensational and would find it very difficult to hold fellowship with those who are. Another evangelical church has been distressed recently with views taught by one of its professors regarding the nature of the resurrection body, another question of eschatology. And, of course, the rise in the popularity both of annihilationist views – that those who are unsaved are simply extinguished and that there is no eternal punishment in hell – and of universalist views – that all are at last saved – even in evangelical circles indicates that eschatological questions are not only profoundly relevant to our understanding of our Christian faith, but much in dispute. It isn’t only about the millennium that Christians disagree. At virtually every point of biblical eschatology, there are significant issues of biblical interpretation to be resolved and biblical teachings to be defended.
Now, I said that for most evangelicals, eschatology, as a term, conjures up scenarios of the end of the world. However, as a term in proper biblical and theological usage, eschatology should be considered as referring to the Bible’s entire doctrine of the future, including that future that is now past or present to us. From the very beginning, the Bible oriented believers toward the future, toward events that had not yet taken place, toward the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises. Scripture was always teaching God’s people to look forward to things to come. Some of those things, of course, have already come. Some have not. There are prophecies of the first coming of the Messiah in the OT and those have been fulfilled. There are prophecies of his second coming in the OT and those have not been. But all of those prophecies, properly speaking, are eschatology. As one scholar puts it:
“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving…. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of the Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set…. Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, and of every Christian existence and of the whole Church.” [J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 16]
Reflect on the Bible’s message for just a moment and you will see how true this is. Name the doctrine, it has an eschatological shape and character. Sin and guilt are nothing apart from the conviction that God will someday judge the world, that there is a future reckoning, as the Bible says there is. Justification is nothing if, in fact, there is not a future event in which the righteous will be separated from the wicked. Sanctification is nothing and means nothing if our lives are not heading toward a goal, if spiritual progress will not be rewarded and vindicated. Faith is the substance of things not seen and most of those unseen things, are those things that will someday be seen when Christ appears. Faith, as we read in Hebrews 11, is the conviction that God will someday reward those who seek him. And so on. In other words, eschatology is all-pervasive in the Bible. Nothing it teaches is unrelated to or independent of the future that God promises will unfold in a certain way.
What is more, in the Bible, eschatology is all of a piece. It is one unfolding future. One will not understand the things yet to come if he or she does not have some understanding of those things that have already come. Nor can one understand the way the Bible talks about the future unless we go back to the beginning and examine those things that were predicted that have already come to pass, the form of words used to make those predictions of the future, and how their fulfillment matched the original prediction.
Let me illustrate the importance of this point with one of the earliest of biblical prophecies, what is called the proto-evangelium, the first gospel, in Genesis 3:15. In the cursing of the serpent, the Lord promises:
“You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring
and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his hell.”
This promise, made at the very headwaters of the life of fallen mankind, is often referred to as the “mother promise,” or, in the words of Saddam Hussein we might say it is the “mother of all promises.” It is the first mention of what will become the Bible’s central and major theme – the salvation of God’s people by the coming of their Redeemer. “We might say that in this passage God reveals, as in a nutshell, all of his saving purpose with his people.” [Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 5] The rest of the history of redemption will be an unfolding of this single promise.
Now take note of some features of this promise, so characteristic of so many predictions in the Bible and of the Bible’s eschatological language.
1. First, note that nothing is said about when the serpent will strike the heel of the woman’s seed or when that seed will crush the serpent’s head. These things will take place in the future but, reading the promise, we don’t know whether they will take place in a week or in ten thousand years. Now, that is very characteristic of biblical predictions of the future. Many of our most vigorous debates about the meaning of the Bible’s eschatological statements are about precisely when the events predicted will unfold. Everything would be so much simpler if the prophecy had added that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. No one would have known at the time what any of those time markers meant, but at least folk would know that until those people appeared the prophecy would remain unfulfilled. And, of course, it gets even more complicated. For the time of the fulfillment of this mother prophecy is itself complex. We might well think that the Gospels teach us to think that Christ crushed the head of the serpent when he died on the cross and rose again. After all, the Lord Jesus himself spoke of binding the strong man and defiling his house. And there are many interpreters of the Bible that take the references to the serpent being hurled down from heaven to earth (Rev. 12:9) and being bound for a thousand years (20:2) as events now in the past, a change in Satan’s status that Christ effected when he was in the world. Yet, in Romans 16:20 we read Paul saying “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” Then John tells the readers of his first letter, “you have overcome the evil one” [2:14] Is Satan not yet crushed? Is he partly crushed? Is he crushed in principle but not yet in historical fulfillment? And precisely when will he be crushed if he has not yet been crushed?
Questions like these multiply times without number in the study of biblical prophecy. This indefiniteness in respect to the time of fulfillment, even to the precise nature of the fulfillment predicted, is something we have to deal with all the time in reading and interpreting the eschatology of the Bible. Christians have been sure that the end of the world was upon them from the first century until now and these good and wise people have been wrong 100% of the time. Clearly one must respect the Bible’s way of predicting the future or he or she will go astray.
2. Then, notice also the imprecision of the terms employed. We are told that the “seed of the woman” will crush the head of the serpent. Well, much later we learn that the serpent is a metaphor for Satan, because Satan used the serpent in his temptation of Eve and Adam. But we do not know that yet, not from anything said explicitly in the prediction itself. And so it is with the seed. Who is the seed of the woman: Cain? Abel? Seth? Well, it ends up being Seth more than Cain or Abel, but only later is that made clear and only because of the connection, as a man of faith, that Seth bears to Abraham. For in 22:18 we learn that it will be through the seed of Abraham more specifically that salvation will come to the world – though it is put there in more general language than I have used. Then we learn near the end of Genesis that it will be through Judah that the seed will come, and then later in the OT that it will be through the seed of David that the promise to Abraham will be fulfilled. None of this is remotely suggested in the actual text of Genesis 3:15. All of it is elaboration that comes only later. In Gen. 3:15 we have only the broadest strokes. No one could possibly imagine from reading 3:15 the grand course of the unfolding of this promise in the history of salvation. But, in this too, Gen. 3;15 is entirely characteristic of biblical eschatological texts. One of the reasons we argue so much about eschatology is precisely because there is so much room left for argument when so little is said that is specific and detailed. The fact is, biblical eschatology is full of surprises, from Genesis onwards, even though we have been told in advance what would happen. We certainly could never have predicted precisely how the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent from reading Gen. 3:15. What does crush mean here, after all? And, for that matter, what does it mean for the serpent to strike the heel of the seed? You kill a serpent, extinguish its existence; but that isn’t what Jesus has done and will do to Satan. Crush here means to destroy the works of, to break his power, to judge and punish Satan, to frustrate his rebellion, and so on. The telling was so general and so imprecise that no one could read the history out of the prophecy except in a very general way. In the same way, we could not say from Gen. 3:15 that striking at the heel of the woman’s seed would involve the temptation in the wilderness, the other temptations of the Lord’s life, his terrible ordeal in Gethsemane, the particular sufferings he endured on the cross, and so on.
We know the Lord was coming to save his people from their sins, for example. But no one could have surmised that his life would take the form it did, no one could have written the history of Jesus Christ the Messiah, out of the prophecies given beforehand. They were absolutely true and came to pass as was said, but they were sufficiently general to allow for almost unending surprise when the life and ministry of Jesus Christ unfolded as it did. No one could deny that the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was prophesied beforehand in a way that proves the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture, but those prophecies left a great many things unexplained. And there is hardly an eschatological text in the Bible that does not partake of the same generality and so contribute to the same difficulty in knowing precisely what is being predicted. Only after the fact does one see clearly what was meant by the prophesy and how it came to pass.
3. I have alluded to this already, but it is worth mentioning as it occurs in this very first prophecy of the Messiah and his work. Gen. 3:15 partakes of what is sometimes called the prophetic perspective sometimes referred to as prophetic foreshortening. We will discuss this in some detail later in this series, but now simply take note of the fact that in Gen. 3:15 crushing the serpent’s head seems a single act at a moment in time. Surely anyone would suppose that was what is meant. But, the fact is, this crushing takes place in any number of events over large tracts of time and is not completed until the consummation of time. Prophecy sees the entire future as one, a single event, while history breaks that single event into a course of events. In the NT we learn that Satan is crushed by Christ’s work, by the resistance of believers in the power of the Lord, and, finally, when Christ comes again and consigns Satan to the Lake of Fire. This prophetic perspective, seeing the future as a unity, is characteristic of many prophecies of the future in the Bible and it too creates any number of problems of interpretation as we seek to know precisely what the prophet meant by what he said. It is perhaps this prophetic perspective, more than anything else, that so confused the disciples during the Lord’s time among them. The prophecies of the Messiah include his suffering, no doubt, but cheek to jowl with the suffering is his triumph, his leading his people in triumph, his destruction of his enemies. In prophecy after prophecy, the Messiah comes and establishes his reign and peace comes over all the earth. It is not clear that thousands of years would pass between his death and resurrection and the triumph of his kingdom in the world. The prophecies see that future as a single unity, because, indeed, the deepest sense, it is. It is all one certain outcome. But its historical development proves much more complicated. And this complication is another one we face in the Bible’s eschatology at virtually every turn. Do we have that prophetic perspective, for example, in the Lord’s Olivette discourse, in Matt. 24? Postmillennialists tend to say no, but amillennialists and premillennialists tend to say yes. Can the Lord compact together in a single vision of the future, the destruction of Jerusalem a few years hence and, at the same time, the second coming and the end of the world? Well, yes he can. The prophets often did this. Did he do it there in Matt. 24? That is the question.
4. I could go on and on. For example, in this prophecy in Gen. 3:15 there is nothing about Israel or the land, nothing about the Holy Spirit, nothing about prophets, priests, or kings, nothing about heaven or hell. And this too is characteristic of biblical prophecy and so biblical eschatology. It is everywhere a case of merismus, something here and something there and rarely everything at once all together. It would be so helpful if all the strands of biblical prediction were somewhere drawn together into a single cord. But it never happens. This too causes no end of difficulties. How are various things to be linked up in the biblical scheme of the unfolding of the history of the kingdom of God. What goes with what? To name just one famous problem, where does Israel fit into the scheme of the consummation of the ages, if at all. There is a lot about Israel in biblical prophecy, but what parts of that picture go with what parts of human history? Many in our own church disagree quite profoundly in the answers they give to that question.
I could go on but that is enough to illustrate the point I wanted to make as we begin. Biblical eschatology is found from the beginning of the Bible to the end. It is all of a piece and to master it, to the extent that it can be mastered, one must learn its language, its idiom if you will. One must treat biblical eschatological texts on their own terms. One should very definitely not expect a kind of prediction of those things that remain future to us that was not employed to predict those things that have already come to pass. What is more, we hope to learn in our study what biblical prophecy is for and how it profits us. Perhaps its great purpose is not to give us ahead of time a time-line of the end of the age.
What we want to do in this series is precisely to learn how to read the Bible’s eschatology in the Bible’s own terms. To learn to think eschatologically about everything, as the Bible does, but to think about it in terms faithful to the Bible’s own presentation and approach. We may well come away less certain about some things and more certain about others. That’s alright, if we come away more certain about what we ought to be certain about and less certain about those things the Bible has not given us reason to be certain about. I hope you are looking forward to this study. It will bring us into contact with many parts of the Bible and some parts we typically think are less helpful. It is my goal to help you see how wonderfully helpful they really are.