Understanding Eschatology (End Times)
The word 'eschatology' is derived from Greek words meaning the study of the last things. These include Jesus' second coming, the final judgement and the establishment of the new heaven and new earth, as well as any events which are thought to happen just before that.
The second coming of Christ is mentioned over three hundred times in the New Testament, so it is clearly a very important part of the Biblical revelation, and certainly the most important event yet to take place in the future.
It is most important that we get our understanding of the second coming primarily from our study of the Bible, rather than from books, magazines, videos or teaching from other people. All these need to be tested (1 Thess 5:19-22), as our knowledge and prophecy is imperfect (1 Cor 13:9-12).
Some principles for approaching eschatological passages
1. We need to keep in mind that there are three basic and very practical purposes for the teaching on eschatology in the New Testament. Probably the most important purpose is as a call to a holy and blameless life (2 Pet 3). We need to be ready to meet Jesus, as we do not know when he will come. The promise of his coming is also a comfort to those suffering in this life, particularly those suffering persecution. There is a better life coming, therefore there is hope. It is also an implicit call to evangelise the lost, before it is too late.
2. An important principle of Bible study is that we should start with the clear passages, those passages easier to understand. There is clear teaching on the second coming in some of Jesus’ parables, and Paul’s letters. With that light we can then approach the more difficult passages. It is unwise to start by studying Daniel and Revelation.
3. There is a priority of the New Testament over the Old Testament. The Bible gives us a progressive revelation, with a greater revelation given in the New Testament. We need to see how the New Testament writers saw the fulfilment of prophecies, especially those concerning the nation of Israel (Amos 9:11-12, Acts 15:16-17). Promises originally given to Israel are often widened to include people from all nations.
4. It is important to recognise that predictive prophecy is only fully clear after its fulfilment. The predictions in the OT concerning Jesus' first coming were not fully understood until after the event. In eschatology, we are looking to the future, so no one can be dogmatic. None of knows exactly what is going to happen.
5. In studying Daniel, Revelation and other difficult books, as in all books, we must remember the basic principle of interpretation. We need to ask the question, “What did this mean to the author and the original readers?”, and base our interpretation on that.
6. We need to be aware of apocalyptic language, where symbolic language is used to describe events or spiritual truths. Much of the Book of Revelation is written in this style. In the Apocrypha, there is a book of additions to the book of Esther, written much later than the original book. These passages describe Mordecai's dream, predicting what is about to happen in the book. They are in apocalyptic style. It is a helpful example of apocalyptic writing, because we can be certain of what it means.
Noises and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult on the earth! Then two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly. At their roaring every nation prepared for war, to fight against the righteous nation. It was a day of darkness and gloom, of tribulation and distress, affliction and great tumult on the earth! And the whole righteous nation was troubled; they feared the evils that threatened them, and were ready to perish. Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water, light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour. (A:5-11)
Now follows the Book of Esther
After the end, Mordecai sums up as follows
I remember the dream that I had concerning these matters, and none of them has failed to be fulfilled. There was the little stream that became a river, and there was light and sun and abundant water - the river is Esther, whom the king married and made queen. The two dragons are Haman and myself. The nations are those that gathered to destroy the name of the Jews. And my nation, this is Israel, who cried out to God and were saved. (F:5-9)
This dream, described in such dramatic language, is actually the story of Esther!
7. It is not good practice to build significant doctrines on something which is only mentioned once in the Bible, or only in obscure passages. For example, the millennium is only mentioned once (Rev 20). We should build our understanding from things which are mentioned frequently and consistently throughout the Bible, in NT as well as OT.
8. We should not forget that many predictions in both Testaments have already been fulfilled in history. These can be in the Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC, and the return from exile after 539 BC, or in the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. It is important for us to know about the important events in biblical history.