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GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)--Thirty years ago I asked a group of college students what book of the Bible they would like to study at a home Bible study I led each week. Then, and the next two or three times I asked a church or church group that question, the book of Revelation was the clear winner. I stopped asking that question because I didn't want to teach Revelation every year for the rest of my life.
I think the answer might be different if I asked it today. The study of end times is a lot of work and requires interpretation of some pretty fantastic passages with dragons and giants and wheels inside wheels and great battles where some of the weapons look like grasshoppers. Listening to a teacher apply these visions to past and future events just sounds so irrelevant to the modern ear. We'd rather talk about the here and now instead. How do I live? How can I serve God? What does the Bible say about peace and justice and missions for me?
That's the Gospels, right? If we leave out all that stuff about Hell, and skip over Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus' teaching (the red-letter part) seems to scratch where most of us think we itch.
But what about 2 Timothy 3:16? Jesus wrote that part, too. Do we really believe that all Scripture is "profitable?" That would seem to include the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, and John. Those passages are more difficult, to be sure, but does that let us off the hook? Actually, the hard parts of Scripture are also timely and practical -- especially if we consider their context and the intent, sometimes stated, for the messages. Scripture passages related to understand end times have a message for believers and churches today if we'll work through them.
Take 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, for one easy example. In the midst of persecution, the Thessalonian church asked about believers who had died before the return of Christ. "Will my dead loved ones who believed in Jesus also go to Heaven?" is the question we might infer from Paul's answer. He answers them with a promise that they will not only go to Heaven but they will rise first, right before we are "caught up" to meet the Lord in the clouds. And yes, "caught up" is translated in Latin with the word rapio, the word that forms the basis for the English "rapture," meaning "caught up." The Bible does teach that there will be a rapture of believers, then. Paul tells them (and God tells us) to "comfort one another with these words."
As Paul continues his discussion of the end times into chapter 5, he encourages us to be alert, sober-minded -- protected from temptation by faith, love, and the hope of salvation. And he again says that we should comfort and build up one another with this teaching of eschatology. Pretty practical, I think, especially for those who are facing persecution or the hardship of life in a corrupting world. Some of us live in persecution and all of us live in a fallen and disappointing world.
John's vision in Revelation came in a similar context to his first readers. In the midst of it we are also assured that sin will be judged and defeated, that believers and churches will be praised and rewarded for faithfulness to Christ, and that even the most frightening events of history occur under the sovereignty of God. There are times in all our lives when these exhortations to faithfulness and God's promise of victory over evil become profitable to us.
The visions of Daniel and Ezekiel contain a message of comfort regarding the restoration of a defeated Israel. We also have there a revelation of God's character as faithful. In the midst of defeat, God shows that He still keeps His word to His people. God shows Himself as the Lord and judge of nations and kingdoms, even those not-yet kingdoms in our personal timeline. Our hope of Heaven is based on the character and integrity of God. Because He has kept His word, we know that He will keep His word for those things we've not yet seen. Assurance of our salvation and a sure trust in God are a necessary part of the Christian life. God's justice is also an important element of understanding our salvation and sanctification. The eschatological message that God's promise of reward and punishment will come true in an ultimate sense is important to our interpretation of the events and ministry of each day because human justice will never be complete.
It is a mistake to put too much hope in the things of this world, even as we work to improve them. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that our hope in Heaven is essential to the Christian life. We care for the earth because it is God's. We treat people with love and compassion because God has loved us and commanded us to do so. We are active and engaged citizens (in those countries that allow it) because freedom is also a stewardship for the good of all. And so on with other good and godly works. We don't do these things because this world is our perfectible permanent home. Our home is already perfect, and it is not here. When the Bible tells us about our perfect home through a prophetic vision or a sermon of Jesus, or a letter of Paul, we should be very interested. God has deemed it beneficial, and interesting.
The Bible also tells us about God in eschatological passages. I mentioned His faithfulness and His justice already but we also have visions of God's Heaven, prophecies of God as a warrior, promises related to the deliverance of our salvation, further implications of His holiness, more about His creation, and many other things that add to our knowledge and understanding of infinite God.
What practical use do we derive from the historical narratives in the Bible if not God's revelation of Himself through past events? Sure, we may be interested (we should be) in what happened, but we certainly should be interested to know what God did so that we might know Him better. In some cases we are told the whys of God's actions, other times we are left to ponder the actions themselves. We learn about God, though.
Passages that clearly refer to the work of God not yet in our present tense are not different. Efforts to understand these passages deepen our understanding of God because they provide more data of what God has done/is doing/will do. We miss something important if we only read or preach or teach random selections from the Bible. Our understanding will be as spotty as our interaction with God's revelation.
What about all these views of the millennial reign of Christ or the timeline for the great tribulation? I'll confess, I sometimes find the endless discussions of debatable doctrines like eschatology and Calvinism tedious -- especially when I'm talking with someone who draws lines in the sand where God does not. But, not everyone whose reading of the Scriptures leads him to an interpretation of end times is majoring on minors. You really can't read biblical prophecy (and you will if you read the whole Book) without forming an opinion about what it might be saying. That's what these viewpoints represent, an effort to understand what God is saying. Again, that's something that matters for every person in every age. It doesn't require a seminary degree or a massive stack of books, but it does require some thought and study of the Bible. Who's against that?
A rebirth of expository preaching, an increase in biblical literacy, a broader familiarity with biblical doctrine -- these things will naturally result in disciples better able to put the study of last things in its proper place. Eschatology is not the whole thing and it's not nothing, but it is an interwoven part of the whole counsel of God. Churches cannot undertake a systematic teaching of God's Word without getting into eschatology at the right times and to the right degree. Neither can we hope to give eschatology, or any other biblical doctrine, an appropriate emphasis without committing to teach all that God has commanded us. It is a symptom of a more serious problem that so many church members have so little knowledge of, or interest in, a doctrine about which the Bible says so much.
Gary Ledbetter is editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.