What’s going on in this world? Recent history has seen some of the most horrific and universal crisis the world has ever seen. With wars, diseases, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and a host of other events haunting the inhabitants of the earth, is the end imminent, or still in the more distant future? How can we prepare for the end? Do we even need to? How should we interpret Bible prophecy, so that we don’t get carried away by fanaticism? Let’s take a look.
Does your study take into account the reality of Jesus?
While most Christians would give an "amen!" to the idea that Jesus should be the centre of one's life and study, many struggle to keep their focus on Jesus, especially when it comes to prophecy. Like a man gazing into a microscope, those who read prophecy are often caught in the trap of missing the big picture, because they are fascinated by its finer details. Yet, as John Paulien writes, "The heart, soul, and center of the New Testament view of the end is Jesus Christ... When the New Testament is rightly understood, Jesus Christ is what the end is all about"1.
Whether one reads the Gospels, the letters of Paul, or the Revelation of John, prophecy is overwhelmingly centered upon the courageous Lamb, and His heroic actions toward those whom He loves so deeply.
So the first and most important component of a balanced interpretation of prophecy involves keeping a focus on Jesus through the process of your study. To be guided by Him through the text, and to keep Him as the core of your study will allow you to remain balanced in your view of any detail that might otherwise be taken out of this greater context, and misinterpreted or misapplied.
What is the purpose of prophecy?
Perhaps one of the first questions any Bible student should ask, when attempting to understand prophecy, is, "what is the purpose of prophecy?". If its purpose is simply to excite, and provide short-term spiritual motivation, then one has to question the effectiveness of prophecy in the Christian life. This is the attitude that seems to have existed in the hearts of Jesus' disciples, when, in Matthew 24, they asked Him about the timing and signals of His second coming (the same questions that we ask today!). If we examine the text objectively, isolating it from our own ideas and preconceptions, we can come closer to realising the true purpose of prophecy, and our ideas about the end-time will be clarified. Jesus' response to the disciple's question displays the wisdom of a teacher who knew better than to give a direct response. "To the when question He simply says, "No one knows".” And while He lays out a plethora of signs, He qualifies their meaning with statements like, "the end is not yet" and, "these are the beginning of sorrows"2. In further clarification of His message, Jesus makes it clear that His coming should not be expected until "all these things have happened"
As LaRondelle highlights, "we must see the fulfillment of all the signs before we can know with certainty that Jesus' coming is "'near, right at the door'"3. This emphasis on the fulfillment of "'all these things'" is our protection against premature announcements" of the Second Coming. This particular point is vital for todays uncertain situation, where people are searching for hope in a volatile world. While the Bible provides certain end-time hope, we must accept the bounds of what it reveals, in order to avoid disappointment.
While Jesus does not answer the disciples' questions as directly as I would have hoped for, His answers reveal a deeper purpose. As Roberts writes, "Could it be that knowing the answer might not be in our best interest? Could it be that Christ knew that a spiritual experience dependent upon when and what is a troubled, sporadic experience"4.
As we examine the historical attempts to predict the Second Coming, from Luther, through to the Great Disappointment, and up until most recent times, it becomes clear that such attempts are ultimately far more damaging than would first be apparent. While spurring on short-term zeal and religious passion, these repeated predictions have worked against the prophetic purpose of bringing people closer to Jesus.
Jesus would go on to replace the disciple's imperatives of when and what with who and how; that is, who they should focus on, and how they should go about life until He would return. Rather than serving as a “hobby horse” for the religiously curious, Jesus made it clear that the purpose of prophecy was to highlight the need for a strong relationship with Himself, and a personal watchful attitude toward His coming, whenever it happened.
1 Paulien, Jon, What the Bible Says about the End Time, Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1994, 34.
2 Roberts, Randall L. The End is Near Again: Being Ready for the Return of Jesus Whenever it Happens (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press), 2003, 32.
3 LaRondelle, Hans K, Light for the Last Days, (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press), 1999, 21.
4 Roberts, Randall L, 32.