As we begin to work our way through the 24th chapter of Matthew on Sunday morning, we are going to be wading into the study of eschatology. Our eschatology is our theology of the end times. As I noted on Sunday morning, when Jesus delivers His Olivet Discourse, He is speaking of two different events: the “near” event of the destruction of Jerusalem which came just 40 years later in 70 A.D., and the “far” event of His second coming and the final judgment, which at this time is still a future occurrence for us.
Rightly interpreting apocryphal texts, like those we have in Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation, and here in Matthew 24, is often very challenging. These texts are recorded visions which employ an incredible amount of metaphor and symbolism to reveal truths about God’s judgment of the wicked and His preservation of the righteous. Though we might prefer more clarity, we must remember that Scripture is absolutely inerrant and completely sufficient. God has given us exactly what we are meant to have, even in regards to descriptions of the end times. So where precise identification of future events is difficult, we are to continue trusting Christ with the future and not be divided over different interpretative schemes. Eschatology is one of those third-tier areas of theology where we can have loving latitude in opinions.
That being said, I wanted to go ahead and introduce us this week to the four main schools of interpretation. Next week, I’ll write about the different views of the millennium.
(1) Historicism is the interpretive approach that understands the literary order of the visions to correspond to the actual course of history. For example, historicists believe that Revelation 4:1 through 20:6 symbolizes the chronological order of events from the time of the apostles all the way until the time of the end of the world. They link the movement through these chapters with the movement from the Roman Empire to the middle ages to the renaissance and reformation and on into the modern age. Thus, only Revelation 20:7-22:5 deals with Christ’s second coming and the final judgment. Historicism has been the historic Protestant interpretation.
(2) Preterism (from the Latin word meaning “things that are past”) contends that most of what is described in the book of Revelation took place in the ancient past, not long after the author’s own time during the early years of the Christian church. Generally speaking, they believe that everything in Revelation 12-19 was completed by the time the Roman Empire fell in the 4th century. Those who are full preterists insist that every prophecy in the New Testament was fulfilled by 70 A.D., thus denying Jesus’ second coming, the resurrection of believers, and the coming of the new heavens and new earth. Partial preterists (rightly) believe that those particular end-time events are still to come in the future.
(3) Futurism is the approach that believes that the majority of what is in Revelation 4-22 is all in the future. They typically contend that the book of Revelation describes events that are coming during the seven years of the tribulation (chapters 6-19) that will then be followed by the millennial reign of Christ on earth (20:1-6) and the final resurrection and judgment (20:7-22:5). This view has become more prevalent in modern evangelicalism than it had been in previous centuries.
(4) Idealism, also known as the Spiritual approach, believes that the book of Revelation describes the spiritual realities present down through world history as Christ and His church are at conflict with Satan and the wicked. There is not an order of history that is being followed in a single linear sense, but there are cycles that are continually repeating with the rise and fall of nations and the success and persecution of the church down through human history. Thus, the book of Revelation is a record of vision cycles that were true for the early church age as well as true for the modern church age, and fulfillment of these visions is recurrent. They do believe that the final chapters of Revelation refer to a final consummation when intense persecution of the church will lead to the final return of Christ and the new heaven and new earth.
As we delve into Matthew 24, I hope that all of us will be like Bereans, studying the Scriptures to clearly discern the truth and to establish our own approach to these challenging texts. Regardless of where each of us may fall, we know that Christ will come again in all His splendor to reclaim His bride and to judge the wicked. In this we can rejoice!