The Word of our Lord:
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near (Rev 1:3).
Our post, Was Jesus a False Prophet?, compels some to ask:
If the prophecy of Matthew 24 was fulfilled in that generation where, then, is our hope for salvation; and how do we interpret the Book of Revelation in light of Old Testament prophecy?
When Christ prophesied the impending destruction of the Temple (Mt 24:2) the disciples imagined the end of the age was near as Jesus made a matter-of-fact statement that this generation will not pass away until all these things take place (Mt 24:34).
Generation, or genea, has been interpreted by dispensationalists to mean race, or family, thus suggesting that the Jewish people will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled.
Recall that the disciples asked Jesus essentially three questions (Mt 24:3).
When will these things be? That is, the destruction of the Temple; and note that Christ says something very interesting:
…for these things must take place, but that is not yet the end (Mt 24:6).
What will be the sign of Your coming? And Jesus answered that there will be wars, famine, earthquakes and tribulation:
But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs (Mt 24:8).
In Luke’s parallel account Christ emphasizes that the end does not follow immediately (Lk 21:9).
And of the end of the age? Here, Jesus uses the illustration of the days of Noah:
But of that day and hour no one knows…(Mt 24:36).
Jesus warns that many false Christs and false prophets will come performing signs and wonders saying that the end is near, but do not believe them.
We can see, then, that all of these things (tribulation and distress) will take place in that generation, but the end is not yet. Clearly, the Olivet Discourse can be very difficult to understand because the Lord jumps back and forth on the timeline of events, but one thing is very clear:
…the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Mt 24:13).
The Lord isn’t specifying here the end of the age necessarily, but to the end of one’s sojourn.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts that we:
…run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross (Heb 12:1-2).
It is a common theme throughout the Bible that we who endure shall be blessed. This is where Matthew 24 ties in with the Book of Revelation. To the seven churches of Asia our Lord promised blessings to those who overcome. Understand that Revelation is to the New Covenant what Daniel is to the Old Covenant. They are bookends, if you will, of the Bible’s prophetic message; and the Olivet Discourse (found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21) is often referred to as the Little Apocalypse.
Now examine the following verse from the Book of Daniel:
But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase (Da 12:4).
Daniel is one of the richest prophetic books in all of scripture. The prophet speaks of everlasting life (Da 12:2) which makes one curious as to why the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. Daniel uses prophetic symbolism to describe the end of times which will be marked by an increase in knowledge as occurring events offer clues of fulfillment. Indeed, how many books of the genre Late Great Planet Earth have predicted (falsely in all cases) the end of the age?
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible shares some insight:
And knowledge shall be increased – This would be one of the characteristics of these times, and this would be the means by which it would be accomplished. Our own age has furnished a good illustration of the meaning of this language, and it will be still more fully and strikingly illustrated as the time approaches when the knowledge of the Lord shall fill the whole world.
For those who take an historicist view of Bible prophecy these things were seemingly fulfilled during the Maccabean revolt (167-160 B.C.) against Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar. (Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple after the successful Maccabean uprising. Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication as recorded in Jn 10:22.) This abomination of desolation (Da 9:27) is referenced by Christ as a sign of great tribulation:
Therefore when you see the Abomination of Desolation which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains (Mt 24:15-16).
Antiochus was a blasphemer and persecutor who murdered over 100,000 Jews, but Christ was speaking of a yet future abomination which some historians believe was fulfilled in 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, burned the Temple (not one stone was left standing as prophesied by Jesus), murdered one million Jews and took captive tens of thousands to build the Coliseum in Rome.
Interestingly, we learn from these events that prophecy can have a double fulfillment, or history does repeat. That is something to keep in mind as we go deeper in the study of God’s word. Some believe that the Dome of the Rock is an abomination of desolation in the present age.
Contrast the seal upon Daniel’s prophecy with the following passage from the Book of Revelation:
(The angel of the Lord) said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (Rev 22:10).
Daniel’s prophecy was sealed because the time of fulfillment was not at hand, but John is told that the time is near:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ to show the things which must soon take place (Rev 1:1).
Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it, for the time is near (Rev 1:3).
…the Lord sent His angel to show the things which must soon take place (Rev 22:6).
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming quickly.” Amen, come Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20).
The caveat to this last verse is that Jesus said He will not come until the Jewish people say with conviction, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord (Mt 23:39).
We interpret that Daniel’s sealed prophecies are the very ones opened in the Book of Revelation; and it is revealing that the signs Jesus noted in Matthew 24 (false Christs, wars, famine, pestilence, tribulation, abomination) are all unsealed in John’s vision.
The interpretive challenge here is one of hermeneutics, or methodology. Is the Bible to be understood literally or figuratively? Well, both. Take, for example, the Gospel of John where Jesus teaches:
I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst (Jn 6:35).
I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever…(Jn 6:51).
John records that the Jews argued with one another:
How can this man give us His flesh to eat (Jn 6:52)?
The Bible is written with liberal doses of metaphor, allegory, and symbolism that we must understand contextually when a literal interpretation is not plausible.
When Revelation declares repeatedly that these things are soon to happen we have to understand that the book was written to the seven churches of Asia who were suffering terrible persecution in the midst of a Caesar cult that demanded they worship Caesar as Lord, or face death. The avenues of Rome were lit with the burning bodies of Christians who would not forsake their faith. The Jewish-Roman War (66-70 AD) certainly fulfilled portions of the Olivet Discourse and several chapters of Revelation; but the dating of the book is critical to a proper interpretation.
Dispensationalists believe that Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD) — twenty-five years after the fall of Jerusalem. The external evidence to validate this claim is based on suggestive interpretation of a passage in Against Heresies (180 AD) wherein Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote that John (or the vision?) was seen towards the end of Domitian’s reign (95-96 AD). Irenaeus recalled that he was told this as a boy by one of John’s disciples, Polycarp; and for 200 years the church quoted Irenaeus as the authority for the timing of Revelation. (In his discourse, the Bishop refers to the ancient copies of Revelation while the reign of Domitian was almost in our day.)
It is very probable that Irenaeus, as a child, misheard what Polycarp said. Nero, who served as Emperor of Rome from 54-68 AD (during the Jewish war), was known officially as Nero Lucius Domitius, or Nero Domitius. Nero thought himself to be a god, and he demanded worship. People could not buy or sell in the marketplace unless they pinched incense in the palm of their hand (mark of the Beast?), and bowed to him. In fact, Nero was thought of as the Beast, or man of sin. It would be easy to mistake Domitian for Domitius especially since Domitian (who had an equally brutal reputation) was known as the bloody limb of Nero.
Incidentally, Nero beheaded the Apostle Paul, and crucified Peter upside down which causes some to question why John was exiled and not murdered. That answer might be found in John’s gospel where we read, after Simon Peter is told by Christ his manner of death, that Peter inquires of John’s fate: Lord, what about this man (Jn 21:21). And Jesus answered:
If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me (Jn 21:22)!
This started a rumor that John would not die.
We believe that Revelation was written before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (or no later than 68-69 AD) for the purpose of comforting and girding the faithful who were enduring apocalyptic persecution and tribulation.
How much of Revelation was fulfilled in the first century depends, again, on your methodology. There essentially are four systems for interpreting the book:
Historicist is a classic viewpoint taught by John Calvin, Sir Isaac Newton, John Wesley, William Tyndale, C.H. Spurgeon and Martin Luther. It presents Revelation as a timeline of prophetic history. The interpretive challenge is that every generation can see the fulfillment of Revelation in their age. For example, World War 1 was thought to be the end of the age, that is, until the outbreak of World War 2; and every epoch before and after has been viewed by that generation as the end of time. One controversial aspect of this view is its identification of the papacy as the Antichrist. Its breakaway movements: the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists.
Preterist is a method that contends Revelation was written before 70 AD. This would make the prophecy relevant to the people it was written, that is, the seven churches of Asia. A later date for the writing of the book would invalidate this methodology. Protestant reformers were suspect of this viewpoint in that it was promoted by a Jesuit priest, Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613), although it was not a new idea having been taught by the church since the fourth century AD.
Futurist is the mainstream viewpoint preached by media evangelists, and promoted by Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth). Dispensationalism, a method of Futurist eschatology, was introduced by John Nelson Darby (1833), and promoted by C.I. Scofield (see Scofield Reference Bible). Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924) has turned out many dispensational preachers including J. Vernon McGee, David Jeremiah, Chuck Swindoll, Charles Ryrie and Hal Lindsey. Futurists believe in a Great Tribulation, rapture, Armageddon and one thousand year reign. By this method Revelation has no specific relevance to the churches in Asia as its fulfillment is not expected until the end of the world. Futurists lean toward a literal interpretation of Revelation while recognizing that the symbolic literary style makes it extremely difficult to be dogmatic. Thus, dispensationalists can be in strict accord with fundamental Christian doctrine, but differ on non-essentials such as the timing of the rapture.
Idealist method spiritually interprets the Book of Revelation as an age-old story of the battle between good and evil. It is a symbolic, allegorical, metaphorical and timeless account of spiritual warfare in heaven and on earth. There is no specific fulfillment nor historical timeline, but simply a recurring loop of trials and tribulations that repeats itself from generation to generation, or at least until the LORD returns to claim His bride and judge the world.
As to the title of this lesson, Has God Forsaken Us?, may we offer these words of encouragement from Moses to Joshua:
The LORD is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed (Dt 31:8).
If the Lord tarries another thousand years what difference does it make for we can rest in His eternal promise:
I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Mt 28:20).
Whenever that might be.
Suggested Reading: Revelation Explained
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