Wednesday, August 09, 2006

4 Common Mistakes When Studying End Time Prophecy

There seems to be a growing interest in the study of end time prophecy (eschatology) these days within the Body of Christ, or perhaps I should say a growing emphasis upon the subject, as a reaction to the recent developments in the Middle East, in North America and in the rest of the world. This is certainly nothing new. In the past, many have predicted the return of Jesus Christ and have worked up their followers into a kind of frenzy of anticipation, embracing charts and commentaries on ancient Bible prophecy, convinced they know the hidden answers. Unfortunately, many end up deceived, disappointed and often disillusioned. Jesus said: "Take heed that no man deceive you." (Matthew 24:4) The problem lies with men teaching the ideas of men and others falling for it. We need to be led by the Spirit of God which is the Spirit of truth.

Today I am seeing various false teachings arise within the Church, some terribly influential, others gaining strength, taking captive many by their subtle suggestions. Much of this is the direct result of unintentional deception, where members are ignorantly teaching something they have only been fooled into believing; but the uglier side of this points to the schemes and lies of the devil trying to lead astray precious souls from God. We also find ourselves dealing with false prophets and false teachers or worse. It is important to remember the warning and exhortation of Christ Jesus our Lord: "Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation." (Mark 14:38) If ever there was a time to watch, it is now.

End time prophecy is a fascinating and relevant part of the Word of God, constituting nearly 40 percent of the entire Bible, and oh how we need as Christians to begin to rightly divide the word of truth in this area of study. Eschatology is incredibly practical, utterly fundamental and desperately needful; I wholeheartedly encourage people to dig the mines of this valuable treasury, but let us make sure we do so correctly so we avoid dangerous errors.


When studying end time prophecy, I have observed four very common mistakes that Christians make which opens the gate for false teachings. This article is written as an introductory overview in the hope of raising the awareness of these errors and curbing future misconceptions that corrupt the intended meaning of Biblical prophecies. I can only pray that the reader will remember these as he/she continues to study or be taught the subject.

1. Starting from the Wrong Place
One very common mistake people make when studying the end times is that they immediately jump into the book of Revelation, or the book of Daniel, or any of the expressly difficult apocalyptic books that contain much imagery and symbolism, and there attempt to paint a picture of what will take place at the close of the age. In doing this they break one of the most elementary rules of Biblical hermeneutics, which is: that unplain Scripture is to be intpreted by plain Scripture and not the other way around. This means that difficult apocalyptic Scripture is to be interpreted by simple literal Scripture and not the other way around. Error occurs when people create a scenario from the book of Revelation and then try and fit the words of Jesus or the words of Paul into their own conceived notions.

Where students of end time prophecy should start when they begin to study eschatology is with the very words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and solidly understand what He has to say about the subject before proceeding further into the abstract content. Our Lord spoke very plainly and clearly about His own return; what better place to start than with the One to whom these things concern? In essence, it is like building a house. The first thing to do before assembling the frame is to lay down a solid foundation where the rest of the house will be aligned and set. If the foundation is straight, the house will be straight. It is also like constructing a human skeleton from a pile of bones. It is very difficult to know which bone is which and where each fits, but if you establish first the spine, then the rest of the bones fall into place one by one from that starting point. It is exactly the same when studying Biblical prophecy. Make sure you begin at the right place to avoid future error. The right place to start is with Jesus and His plain teaching. Then after Jesus, read and understand that writings of the apostle Paul, who also wrote simply and plainly about the end times, and builds naturally on Jesus. Once the foundation has been solidly laid, then you will find that Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel falls easily into place - easier than you thought!

2. Reading Beyond the Text: Imposing a Presupposition
This fallacy applies not only to Bible prophecy but to any study of the Word of God. It is the error of reading the Scriptures with a preconceived idea and imposing it into a text what is not actually there. Simply put: it is pressing "truth" into the text instead of drawing truth from the text. Unfortunately, this happens with shocking regularity by many who study end time prophecy. Our understanding of Scripture must be so pure that if someone else across the world were to read the same thing we would both come out with the same conclusion. I am not negating the fact that some passages of Scripture are more difficult than others, but regardless of difficulty, we must intentionally refrain from any and every speculation of interpretation that is not plainly drawn from the Scriptures. I believe it is for this reason that there is so much division within the Church regarding doctrine. We must remember 2 Peter 1:20 and hold to it dogmatically, which states: "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation." If you do not know the meaning, do not guess! Simply take what is plain and wait until God makes the rest clear. Interpreting the Bible is a matter of patience.

Let me illustrate this using a straightforward Scripture that has been repeatedly abused in this way. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 reads: "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." Now from this very plain Scripture has amazing speculation been strongly asserted. It is said by many this verse teaches:

1) this is not the coming of the Lord Jesus
2) this is a secret snatching away of the Church
3) this will not be seen, heard or felt by anyone but the Christians
4) this happens before "the Great Tribulation"

Now where in this Scripture did they read this? Try going back and reading the Scripture again to find these suggestions - they cannot be found! How could a person without any previous suppositions gather these points from these words of the apostle Paul? The answer is simple: they have imposed their speculation into the text. These ideas could not have been deduced by the plain reading of the passage. The important key to remember in all this, in order to avoid error, is to only desire the pure milk of God's Word and not the modified "chocolate" milk delivered from a man-ufacturer (1 Peter 2:2). We must be ever so alert to this most common practice.

3. Misunderstanding Israel and the Church
One of the greatest misunderstandings that exists within the Christian Church today, which leads to a whole plethora of doctrinal error, is that there are essentially only two views one can take regarding Israel and the Church: Supercessionism or Dispensationalism. Supercessionism is the belief that the Church has replaced Israel as the people of God (also known as Replacement Theology) and that God has nothing more to do with the Jewish people in any distinct sense. Dispensationalism is the belief that Israel and the Church are two totally separate entities; that neither have replaced the other, and that there exists simultaneously two distinct peoples of God. What one believes about the Israel and the Church will effect their interpretation of prophecy on every level, therefore, to get it wrong here is fail before you even begin.

Both of these views represent two extreme ends of a spectrum. Both of these views actually hold a truth, but they have held that truth too tightly so as not to see how their truths fit together. On the one hand, Supercessionists are correct to notice that in Scripture there is only one people of God, and that the idea of two distinct peoples of God is grossly unBiblical. They are correct to identity that the Church is Israel, but they are wrong in the way they think about it. Nowhere does the Bible teach that the Church has replaced Israel, for the Church is Israel, the same Israel as Israel has always been. What the Bible tells us is that "some of the natural branches (Jews) have been broken off, so many wild branches (Gentiles) could be grafted in" (Rom. 11:17); so Israel hasn't gone anywhere... the branches have just been rearranged. And the Bible also tells us that "those natural branches that God has broken off He is able to graft in again" (Rom. 11:24). This is what the Dispensationalists have right: they maintain that the Jewish people still have a significance and a future with God. The Bible is very clear in this regard. The Dispensationalists, like the Supercessionists, have simply offered an unBiblical explanation of how these truths fit together.

There is only one people of God, Israel, but Israel has had a major renovation of her branches. The Church is made up of Jews (natural branches who belong there) and Gentiles (who are enjoying a rather odd situation!) who have believed on Jesus Christ the Messiah and His atoning sacrifice. But the Bible tells us that there is still a future for those unbelieving branches who have been cut off. God is well able to graft them back into "their own tree", and one day He will indeed (Rom. 11:25). So it is vital that we have a correct understanding of Israel and the Church, for Biblical prophecy has everything to do with her; we must rightly understand who it is we're reading about!

4. Handling Prophecy Chronologically
The fourth common mistake people make when studying Biblical prophecy is that they mishandle prophecy by assuming a neat and tidy chronological order of prophetic revelation. It is interesting to note that not one prophetic book of the Bible is perfectly chronological: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Zechariah, for example, are all highly discursive (jumping from one subject to another, from one time to another) in their order of vision. If you were to read these books supposing an orderly sequence the final outcome would be confusing and incoherent. Is it not characteristically the pattern of God to reveal unto His people discursive dreams and visions? This may not seem logical to us, who would reason putting everything in a nice neat order, but the fact is, our ways are not His ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).

However, though most Christians acknowledge Biblical prophecy is to be understood discursively rather than chronologically, many people fail to apply that same rule to the Book of Revelation, and rush forward, handling it as if it were a chronologically received vision. In this way they fall into two large dilemmas: first, if you read the Book of Revelation in this way, you will find that the chronology is at odds with what Jesus, Paul and the prophets have disclosed about the time of the end. Secondly, you will find innumerable discrepancies within the Book of Revelation itself (for example, baby Jesus being born in the end times? The second coming happening multiple times?) The Book of Revelation is not one long grandiose vision that John received in perfect chronological order, but a variety of short discursive visions which he received back-to-back, the junction of these scenes being seen his repeated phrase, "After this I saw". It was not the content of the visions that was chronological, but the visions themselves - the next vision following the previous vision, and so on. The book cannot be treated differently than the other prophetic books of the Bible. Doing so creates all sorts of problems (as mentioned above) and would be hermeneutically unrealistic.


I hope that by these brief points your study of eschatology and Biblical prophecy will be rooted and grounded in a proper understanding of Scripture after a sincere love of the truth. The Lord did not set out to confuse His people in this area, but rather desires for us to know and apprehend these matters, even more so as the great Day approaches. May we always seek to be filled with the precious Holy Spirit of promise, that He may give light and understanding to our dark and feeble minds; light we so desperately need in this rapidly approaching midnight hour.

"Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come." (John 16:13)