Eschatology tends to be a fairly hotly debated topic in the church. Numerous books have been written advancing this position or that position, this approach to prophecy or that approach to prophecy, one view of the physical nation of Israel or another. All of the varying and conflicting positions can make it seem like one big convoluted mess that is nearly impossible to unwind and untangle. Eschatology doesn’t have to be so confusing and convoluted. There are some simple, basic interpretive rules that can help us understand what the Scriptures teach. My hope in this article is to set forth some basic interpretive rules for handling the Scriptures and a concise treatment of what eschatology is basically all about.
Principle #1: All of Scripture Testifies to Christ and what He has Done on Behalf of Sinners
The first principle is that all of Scripture centers on and is about Jesus Christ and His work on behalf of sinners. This is what the Scriptures as a whole testify to. If we are to have a biblical understanding of eschatology, we must first understand what the Scripture itself says is the central theme of all of its pages. That theme is Jesus and His life, death and resurrection on behalf of sinners. This principle is set forth most clearly in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”[ii] And also in John 5 where Jesus Himself tells the Jewish leaders,“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”[iii]Jesus sets forth on these two occasions that the Scriptures testify to Him and His work of redemption on behalf of sinners. And the same is true when it comes to eschatology–it’s all about Jesus, which makes perfect sense because eschatology, as we will see, is really just the Bible’s unfolding redemptive narrative from Genesis 3:15 to the consummation of the ages at Christ’s second coming. If our understanding of eschatology takes our focus away from Christ at the center and His work on behalf of sinners, we are going contrary to the Scripture’s own testimony and the testimony of our Lord Himself.
Principle #2: The Analogy of Faith or Scripture Interprets Scripture
The second principle is that Scripture interprets Scripture, the less clear passages are interpreted in light of the more clear passages, the New Testament is the best interpreter of the Old Testament. This is what is called the analogy of faith principle.[iv] Scripture is the authoritative interpreter of itself. What many of the authors of the New Testament are doing is interpreting the Old Testament for us, that is, they are telling us how it should be understood. For example, the book of Hebrews interprets the Old Covenant sacrificial system for us and tells how it should be understood in light of the Person and Work of Christ. We should take our cues in interpreting Scripture from the Holy-Spirit-inspired authors of the Biblical texts themselves.
Principle #3: Different Genres of Literature Have Different Interpretive Rules
This may seem complicated, but it really isn’t. We follow this principle all the time. Poetry and historical narrative are different genres of literature and they have different interpretive principles. Poetry uses a lot of figurative and vivid language that isn’t necessarily intended to be taken in a literal manner. Historical narrative reflects actual events and doesn’t use figurative language in general. One wouldn’t want to interpret poetry as if it was historical narrative, nor historical narrative as if it’s poetry. It wouldn’t make much sense to us at all.
The same is true when it comes to Scripture. We find historical literature, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, etc. in Scripture. They have their own interpretive principles and keeping those in mind will help us understand and make sense of what Scripture is saying.
Principle #4: Context, context, context
This is said many, many times but it is extremely important. Just as you wouldn’t want someone to take your words out of context (because they would be misrepresenting you and twisting your words), so we don’t want to take the biblical author’s words out the context that they were placed in. When we do this we misrepresent and twist the words of Scripture. Many errors in eschatology (and other areas of biblical interpretation) come from not paying close enough attention to context.
So then, what is eschatology? It is often said that it is the doctrine of last things.[v] While this is technically true, I think our scope is often too limited by our idea of “last things.” “Last things” to us often means only that which is coming in our future. And so we associate eschatology only with particular viewpoints regarding events surrounding and leading up to the Second Advent of our Lord. Eschatology has its roots in the Old Testament…all the way back to Genesis 3:15.[vi] Adam and Eve had believed the word of the serpent over the word of God and through their unbelief plunged themselves and all the world into sin. And here in the midst of this tragedy God gives them a promise. He tells them that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent, though the serpent would bruise the heel of the seed.
Here is where eschatology begins. God gives His first promise of the coming Savior. And there is no doubt that this is what was meant. When Adam and Eve had their first son, they named him Cain.[vii] And Eve said, “I have gotten a man, even the Lord.”[viii] Eve understands that God promised Himself and that He would come and put an end to the serpent. Though her timing was way off, Eve’s instinct was spot on. God indeed had promised in Genesis 3:15, that the Savior, the Lord would come and put an end to the serpent.[ix] And so what eschatology really deals with is the unfolding of this wonderful Gospel promise of God to send a Savior to deal with sin, death and the devil and to bring redemption and salvation to a world steeped in sin.
This story of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent is found throughout the Scriptures as its central theme. This Seed comes to be known by other names and titles, such as Savior, Messiah, Servant of God, Immanuel, Mighty God, one like a son of man, son of David, etc. Eventually we are given His name, Jesus.
We see glimpses of this Messiah who was to come throughout the pages of the Old Testament. From the promise given to Abraham to the star that would rise out of Jacob and sit on David’s throne forever to the virgin-born Immanuel whose origins are from ancient times, to the suffering servant of God who heals the transgressions of sinners with His wounds. Messiah is found throughout the Old Testament again and again.[x]
So numerous are the passages in the Old Testament that speak of Jesus and what He has done on behalf of sinners that it is impossible to list them all. The names and titles listed above that speak of Christ are but a sampling of how Christ is spoken of in the Old Testament. The New Testament picks up on these names and titles and demonstrates that Jesus is the one being spoken of and thereby showing us how the New Testament authors approached and understood the Old Testament.[xi] We ought to have the same approach to Scripture. This becomes very helpful when handling passages like Joel 2:28-32, which the Apostle Peter interprets as being fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-21). Peter’s handling of Joel 2 also tells us that the New Testament writers understood that the “last days” came with Pentecost and continue on until Jesus returns in glory to judge the earth. And again, Hebrews tells us how we should understand the scope and purpose of the Old Covenant in light of Jesus and the New Covenant, of which He is the mediator and which is enacted on better promises.
And so we can see that eschatology deals with the whole scope of redemptive history from Genesis 3:15 to the consummation of the ages with the return of Christ in glory.[xii] It centers on Jesus and what He has done for sinners. Less clear passages of Scripture should be understood in light of more clear passages and the New Testament is the best interpreter of the Old Testament. Different genres means different interpretive principles and context, context, context. If we keep these things in mind, eschatology becomes much less complicated and confusing.
For Further Study:
- From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology by Keith Mathison
- A Case for Amillennialism by Kim Riddlebarger
- Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? by Keith Mathison[xiii]
- The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments by Walt Kaiser[xiv]
- The End Times: A Study on Eschatology and Millennialism report done by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the LC-MS. Can be found here: http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=683
[i] This is a huge topic to address because it is inseparably tied to how one interprets the Bible as a whole. It seems to me that many people tend to think that they can isolate their understanding of the “end times” from how they understand the rest of Scripture. This is, however, problematic because it causes us to interpret various parts of Scripture as if they are separate entities and not tied into the overall flow and scheme of Scripture. Certainly there are some areas of disagreement, but to think that how we handle those areas of disagreement has no effect on our understanding of Scripture as a whole is a mistake. The various parts of Scripture are inseparably connected and tied to the central theme and flow of the whole of Scripture–and that includes the “end times” as well. That being said, I cannot possibly exhaustively treat this topic in an article. Rather, my goal here is to give some starting points. An excellent place to start is with understanding that the Scripture’s central theme and focus is Jesus as Savior and Messiah, who came to live and die on behalf of sinners.
[ii] The context is the suffering, death and resurrection of the Messiah.
[iii] John 5:39-40, emphasis mine
[iv] For a fairly simple and succinct explanation of analogy of faith: http://www.theopedia.com/Analogy_of_faith
[v] This comes from the two words that make up eschatology: eschatos (ἔσχατος) and logos (λόγος). These words together take the meaning, “the word about or doctrine of last things.”
[vi] Genesis 3:15 (NIV): 15 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 heel.”
[vii] Heb. קַיִן (Ky-in), Gr. Καιν comes from the word קָנָה (ca-nah) “to get or acquire” (see entry in BDB).
[viii] Gen. 4:1 (BHS): קָנִיתִי אִישׁ אֶת־יְהוָה. This is a literal rendering of the Hebrew and, incidentally, the way Martin Luther translated the Hebrew in his German Bible. Our English translations insert the phrase “with the help of”. However, this is not the only way to make sense of this enigmatic statement made by Eve. It is fair to render it as “I have gotten a man, even the Lord.” See Walt Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God, 43.
[ix] Even if one disagrees with the interpretation of Eve’s statement presented here, it still seems clear that “she expected that God would supply a person who would care for their sin that had occasioned the fall.” Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God, 43.
[x] For further consideration see these passages: Gen 12:1-3 cf. Gal 3:15-28 and Ro 4; Gen 14 cf. Heb 7; Gen 49:10; Num 24:17-19; 2 Sam 7:11b-16; Is 7:14; Is 9:6-7; Is 52:13-53:12; Jer 31:31-34; Dan 7:13-14 cf. Acts 1:1-11; Hos 11:1 cf. Mt 1:18-25; Micah 5:2 (It is interesting to note that in the Septuagint (LXX), the language of having origins from old, from ancient times, is translated in Greek in the same way that John speaks of the Word in the opening of his Gospel (John uses ἀρχή (archae), which is translated “beginning”). The same Greek word ἀρχή (archae) is used in Micah 5:1 (5:2 in English) to speak of the one from Bethlehem as being “from old”and the phrase ἐξ ἡμερῶν αἰῶνος (from days everlasting). This language clearly communicates that this one who is to come from Bethlehem can be no ordinary human being but is something far greater than that). This is but a small sampling of the Old Testament passages that speak of Christ.
[xi] This doesn’t mean that the only way we know of Christ as Messiah is by the New Testament interpreting the Old for us. There is plenty contained within the Old Testament passages that testify to Messiah and who He is and what He would do for sinners (for an example, see the account of Simeon and Anna and how they understood who Jesus was and what He came to do in Luke 2:22-38). But the Old Testament is much further removed from us than the New and some of its imagery is strange and confusing to us and so we need the help of the New Testament authors to understand the Old. And, of course, the New Testament is the authoritative Word of God, just as the Old Testament is, and they work in concert with one another and not in conflict. But we must also recognize that what the New Testament authors are so often doing is giving us Holy-Spirit-inspired authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament. We ought not to interpret the Old Testament in a different manner than the New Testament does. And we should be on guard against interpretations that create conflict between the Old and New Testaments, for they both have their source in the same God who has revealed Himself to us. God is not in conflict with Himself.
[xii] I have greatly benefited from Keith Mathison’s book From Age to Age: The Unfolding of Biblical Eschatology in this regard.
[xiii] Keith Mathison writes from a Reformed perspective and that is evident in this book. However, I have found his critique of Dispensationalism to be helpful. Mathison also demonstrates well in this book that Dispensationalism is not simply a view of the “end times” but that it is, in fact, a system of biblical interpretation as a whole.
[xiv] Though I don’t agree with all of Kaiser’s conclusions, I find him very helpful in seeing God’s redemptive plan in Jesus as the central theme of Scripture.