John vs. Jesus: Approaches that Affect Interpretation
In this article, we look at the second of two approaches that fundamentally affect our understanding of the Gospel. As mentioned in the first article, the way we interpret the New Testament often pits one section of it against another. We’ve seen what happens when we prioritise the Epistles over the Gospels, and now we’re going to focus on the consequence of using John’s Revelation to interpret Jesus’ teachings on the subject of the end of the age.
Most don’t even realise that they do this. That their belief system on this subject prioritises Revelation over the Gospels. In fact, most would readily agree that it’s logical that Jesus’ emphatically clear and plain teachings on the end of the age ought to be the context from which we interpret John’s Revelation, not the other way around. After all, Revelation was written sixty years later (at least) … an account steeped in allegory, hyperbole and imagery. So, why do so many muddle this? We’ll see the reason in a moment.
Let me first offer a warning: this topic is vastly complex and I can only touch on it here. Yet due to the prevalence of rapture mania (via books, movies, and certain Christian television broadcasters), what I do say, is highly controversial. But … critical if we’re contending for the Message of Jesus.
This is the 13th article in our series on Messy Dogma as we seek to re-engage with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this second of two parts, Approaches That Affect Interpretation, we look at what happens when we interpret Jesus’ message on the end of the age from John’s Revelation. If you’re just joining us, you’ll find it more helpful to start with the first article in the series, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation and disclaimers to the series.
2342 words (c. 5 pages) = 20 minute read
Ready for a brief history lesson?
In the middle of the 19th century, a former Anglican preacher, John Darby, who founded a new denomination called the Plymouth Brethren in Plymouth, England, proposed a new way of interpreting eschatology that has now become a mainstream doctrine. While it is commonly referred to as dispensationalism, it is popularised through the “left-behind” rapture theory.
Darby’s teachings would have gone largely unnoticed had his escapist eschatology not been published in The Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Due to the success and cleverness of Cyrus I. Scofield’s study Bible, some of the significant Bible colleges in America, including the Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary, chose Darby’s dispensational theology at the core of their end-times curriculum. This transpired even though neither the early church fathers, nor the reformers taught dispensational concepts. It’s simply mind-blowing how popular this “modern” viewpoint has become despite its lack of historical credentials.
Did you get that? Our left-behind teachings originated in the 19th century … not the first century. With Darby prioritising Revelation over the Gospels on this subject.
While there are now a number of versions to this viewpoint, which generally hinge around when one factors in the rapture, it essentially teaches that the end of this age involves the departure of the saints from the earth, leaving the sinners behind on terra firma to face judgment (the outcome of which is often viewed as a literal torching of planet earth in flames). “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned” is one of many poor-taste bumper stickers that play with this idea.
This theory is now so entrenched in modern Christendom that to even remind some believers of the more historically reliable alternatives to end-times theology can land one in scalding hot water.
The basic problem should immediately be obvious.
Holding an esoteric blow-this-joint eschatology gives us no motivation to contend for Kingdom change in this life.
If this earth is doomed and our purpose is merely to get to the other side in one piece, why bother fighting for a better planet?
Sam Harris, infamously considered America’s leading atheist, said: “We have a society in which 44% of the people claim to be either certain or confident that Jesus is going to come back out of the clouds and judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years. It just seems transparently obvious that this is a belief that will do nothing to create a durable civilisation. And I think it’s time someone spoke about it.” (In an interview with Steve Paulson).
Before we react angrily to his statement with clenched fists, pause long enough to admit that he’s got a point … and a razor-sharp, uncomfortable one at that.
If everything is going to come apart at the seams, why bother doing anything at all? Why not just wait-it-out and survive it? Or escape it? Actually, if this is our end-times worldview, wouldn’t it be more logical to hasten the end by allowing (or even helping) things to get worse? (Of course, I’m being silly. But it is the logical response, if you think about it.)
However, before we do something foolish, let’s ask some disturbing yet potentially life-shaking questions:
- Why was the early church, who lived with an enthralling sense of Jesus’ imminent coming, not guilty of the same fatalistic ideology that Harris correctly, in my opinion, chides Christendom for?
- Why did the early church instead transform their world creating a “durable civilisation”—to use Harris’ words—and so much so that their heroic example inspired much of what is good and beautiful and sustainable about our civilisation 2,000 years later?
Being a truly eschatological people means that not only do we live with an urgent, earnest expectation—whether we feel we’re in the last of the last days, or just at some point in the last days unfolding—it actually means we don’t concern ourselves with a fatalistic linear time-table of events at all; rather we live as Kingdom stewards knowing we will give an account to our Master (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
This is the crux of the issue.
Anticipating Christ’s return refers to an attitude we nurture rather than a timeline we plot; a life-transforming expectation rather than events on the calendar.
Enamoured by a timeline (or sequence of events or check-list of world affairs), we become fatalistic; gripped with an eschatological expectation, we become catalytic. We are to live in such a way as to cooperate with God’s unfolding, ingenious plan in this present age as His Kingdom transforms society; incrementally like a mustard seed, which grows into a tree that provides shade and protection for all the birds (Matthew 13:31, 32), or like leaven that leavens the entire meal (Matthew 13:33).
How do Dispensationalists Err?
While again I may be guilty of being overly simplistic here, the core problem is that dispensationalists view John’s Revelation as the key to unlocking the mystery of the New Testament, as it relates to the end-times drama. That is to say, they interpret Jesus (and even Paul) by John’s Revelation.
Dispensationalists divide the church age into various ages using Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3, and the “last days” are carved up into seemingly clever segments of time in which end-time events will supposedly unfold. It all climaxes with the saints air-lifted to heaven and the ungodly doomed on a scorched earth.
Not only is this inconsistent with the early church’s teaching on the end-times, but it is a terribly unreliable means of interpreting a genre laden with imagery, poetry and symbolism. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said it best: “All the Scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolic attempt to express the inexpressible … People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
Few say it better than Lewis.
But most importantly, dispensationalism’s blow-this-joint eschatology is contrary to the Gospel of the Kingdom message, which is essentially about contending for change in this life, so that heaven is manifest on earth in increasing glory … until that eschatological moment when the King Himself returns.
The New Testament uses the powerful Greek word (parousia) to refer to Jesus’ “coming,” a word that describes the official coming of a king whose arrival would be permanent and whose impact would be lasting. It was used to describe Christ’s return that would consummate His victory on earth, establishing His full Kingdom intent on terra firma, as it is in heaven — in answer to the prayer He taught us to pray (Matthew 6:9, 10). Even John’s Revelation concludes with the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth, not with us flying off to heaven (Revelation 21:2-6).
The implication is that King Jesus is coming to occupy; hence, we’re to prepare for the King’s return, not plan our own getaway. Surely, we should be planning for occupation not banking on evacuation?
But Didn’t Jesus Teach that the Sinners would be Left Behind?
I’ll answer one question that arises at this point as an example of how easily sincere believers read into the Scriptures what they expect to see there.
The left-behind message has been popularised by the dramatic portrayal of a godless world suddenly left behind to chaos and anarchy when believers escape this doomed planet. Bumper stickers, book series and movies have helped us imagine this tragic tale. But what did Jesus actually say? (Read Matthew 24:37-42.)
Jesus explained that His triumphant return would also include judgment; in fact, likening His coming to “the days of Noah” (Matthew 24:37ff). Remember Genesis, Chapters 6 and 7? God flooded the world to remove the ungodly in judgment, establishing righteous Noah and his descendants on the earth. (You know, the domain actually entrusted to us, mankind, in Genesis 1:26-28.)
Jesus taught that just as “the flood came and took them all away,” (Matthew 24:39) at His return “two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:40). We imagine cars left abandoned and planes left unpiloted, as the saints are taken away … but wait … that’s not what He said, is it? Read it again.
…the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be … two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left…”
As the flood took the ungodly away in Noah’s time, Jesus implied that the ungodly are taken away (a metaphor for judgment) in His coming. The righteous are established on earth in His Kingdom fully come. Jesus’ earlier Parable of the Wheat and the Tares also alluded to this (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). He taught that the “harvest is the end of the age” (v. 39), and explained that in His return, the tares are removed so that “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (v. 43).
Of course, this has dramatic ramifications for how one views the coming of Christ and the rapture. If the ungodly are removed in judgment first, what happens to them? What happens to the believers? How does the rapture fit in now? That bumper sticker warning of an unmanned car is now looking as silly as it was cheesy.
These are interesting questions, and subject to various interpretations. However, they are not essential questions, and we’ll look at the essential question in a moment. Let’s first clarify an important phrase.
So, What Does the Last Days Refer to?
Defining the phrase, “the last days” is important. The Bible does not actually use the phrase, the end-times; the closest is Paul’s amazing statement that we are those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
The first time the phrase, “the last days” appears in the New Testament is Peter’s quotation of the prophet Joel: “‘And it shall come to pass in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh’” (Acts 2:17). Then several other phrases refer to the urgency required ahead of the coming of Christ. Paul spoke of “the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1) and also used the phrase, “in latter times” (1 Timothy 4:1). John referred to “the last hour” (2 John 2:18) and Peter also used the phrase, “the last days” (2 Peter 3:3) in his second epistle. Jude refers to the “words … spoken … by the apostles” concerning “in the last time” showing that an essential part of the apostles’ teaching concerned eschatological passion (Jude 17, 18).
So what time period does “the last days” refer to?
The term “the last days” refers to the church age; the time period between the first and second coming of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews said: “God … has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2).
Thus (and disappointing for some), we are in the last days today just as Paul was in the last days in the first century.
What is the Essential Question?
Whatever our opinions on secondary matters concerning end-times may be, the crux of the matter lies in our response now: how are we supposed to live?
Again, Jesus was very clear on this matter. After His discourse on eschatology, He concluded by offering a two-fold response:
Firstly, Jesus stated that “no one knows” the day and hour of His coming, “but My Father only” (Matthew 24:36). It seems that much of Christendom forgets this, or at least, some think that they know better. I’ve lost count of how many notable Christian leaders say things like, “I know what Jesus said, by in my spirit I sense…” (While this sounds so spiritual, I get the sense that this may be more about an over-developed ego than anything else.)
Then Jesus said, “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). Thus, we’re to live holy lives expecting Him to come at any moment. We are to live in “this day” in anticipation of “that Day.” Holy and humble.
But that’s only half the story.
Secondly, Jesus then defined His followers as stewards of His household, who faithfully and wisely use the time they have before His coming (Matthew 24:45). He said: “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing” (Matthew 24:46). So, we’re to live faith-filled lives realising that He may not come in our lifetime.
Faithful and full of faith.
We are to selflessly serve our generation so that we leave a legacy for the next generation to go further in the Kingdom mandate should He tarry. Until He comes, we are to contend for change in our world, aligning our broken, corrupt society to His Kingdom will.
That’s the bottom line. That’s all that Jesus said in addressing the essential question, “How do we live now?”
Holy and humble. Faithful and full of faith.
While balancing the tension between these two statements is often a challenge, amidst so much end-times mania we must not forget these two crucial, bottom-line responses Jesus taught us.
What’s the key point to ponder?
How much of church as we know it, holds to a left-behind eschatology because they interpret Jesus’s words from John’s Revelation? How many believers live in fear rather than faith due to their end-times theology? How many are banking on escape rather than contending for change? Where do you find yourself on these issues, and what are the ramifications?
Where we’re going next?
So far, we’ve tried to get to grips with the context in which Jesus delivered His message. We’ve also sieved through muddied words in an attempt to understand them better. And we’ve now addressed interpretations that negatively affect our interpretation of the New Testament, too.
In the next section, we’re going to start our journey back to getting a grip of Jesus’ message, in the hope that, as we hear it afresh, we can seek ways to better impact our world today.