An excerpt from our book, The Church in Prophecy and History, pp.183-186
One of the worst mistakes of the Reformers was the failure of most of them to correct the erroneous interpretation of Bible prophecies that had developed during the Middle Ages about Israel, the Second Coming of Christ and the other aspects of the future that were given by the Old Testament prophets, the Lord Jesus Himself, the apostles, and the Book of Revelation.
As we mentioned above, the best guiding principle of the Reformation was expressed by the concept called Sola Scriptura, meaning “only Scripture,” or “by Scripture alone.” This was understood to mean that the Bible is the only inspired—and therefore the most authoritative–source of truth. There is value in exposition (explanation) of the Word, as is done in preaching, and in the writing of theological books, commentaries, and devotional literature, but all of these are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written Word of God.
Jesus, the “living Word” (John 1:1, 14), declared Himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:5), but even this great fact is revealed by the “written Word,” The Bible:
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. – John 17:17
Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. – Matthew 24:35
The Reformers meant well, but there were just so many misunderstandings about the plain teaching of the Bible that it was virtually impossible to correct everything at once. Therefore eschatology (the study of “last things”–from the Greek word eschatos) was not revised, and was made even more confusing during the Reformation period.
Near the beginning of this commentary (Chapter 1, verse 10) we discussed various ways that people have interpreted Bible prophecy through the years.
The main question about the prophecies of the Bible is whether or not they will be fulfilled literally. This is especially true about the many places in the New Testament where we are told that Jesus is returning and that His coming could take place at any time.
The Early Church interpreted these passages literally, and lived in the anticipation of Christ’s any-moment return. Knowing this had a purifying and motivating effect on believers. They wanted to be living holy lives when Jesus would return. And, if He might return at any time, there was always an urgency to share the Gospel with those who had not yet received Him as Savior and Lord:
Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God. . . – 2 Peter 3:11-12a.
The other kind of interpretation is the allegorical method. An allegory is a story that is meant to teach a moral lesson. Of course the Bible does contain allegories and many other kinds of symbolic language, but the literal approach to interpretation accepts the idea that once the figure of speech is understood; there is a literal fulfillment for any prophetic utterance. This allegorical approach does not look for a future historical event, but is satisfied with the idea that the story teaches a general moral principle. From this point of view, the promises to Israel might be mistakenly transferred to the church, and the numerous Bible promises of a glorious messianic kingdom and a literal thousand-year reign of Christ can be wrongly interpreted as a gradual transformation of the culture from a pagan civilization to a Christian kingdom.
Now we need to look at the predominant beliefs about the future over the course of history.
- Early Church Eschatology
The first three of the churches in this prophecy would all be part of the Early Church. They were: Ephesus (Apostolic), Smyrna (Persecution), and Pergamum (Compromise). These churches took the simple, biblical “futurist” method of interpretation, which resulted in a “premillennial” view of eschatology. These are pretty technical expressions, so let us break these terms down a little bit.
The “futurist” interpretation accepts what the Bible says about future events literally.
The “premillennial” eschatology was built on this literal futurist approach. It was the belief that Jesus will return to Earth to reign for a thousand years. The Early Christians expected that, at any time, Christ might “catch up” His church at the Rapture (John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 4:1). Then, after the Tribulation period (Jeremiah 30:1-7; Daniel 11:20-45; Ezekiel Chapters 38 and 39; Matthew 24:9-28; Revelation Chapters 6 through 19), they believed that Jesus will return to establish the Messianic Kingdom that Isaiah and most of the Old Testament prophets promised extensively in the Old Testament. According to this Book of Revelation, the Kingdom will be a thousand-year reign of righteousness over a peaceful and prosperous world (Matthew 24:29-32; Revelation 20:1-8). After the millennium there will be a judgment of non-believers (Revelation 20:11-15). This will be followed by the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation Chapters 21 and 22).
- Catholic Eschatology
The Catholic Church is defined by the fourth church of this prophecy: Thyatira (Middle Ages). The leaders of the church felt that they were establishing the Kingdom of Heaven. They employed the historicist (allegorical) method of interpretation, believing that the events in their generations were gradually fulfilling the prophecies.
Since the theologians of the Middle Ages thought that they were building the kingdom they didn’t feel a need for a literal thousand-year reign of Christ in the future. Using the allegorical method of interpretation, they taught that the Old Testament prophecies of a messianic millennium referred to the kingdom they were creating themselves, that would last forever. They believed that Jesus would come back to reign once they had finished preparing for His return. And from their point of view, Israel had been replaced by the church, so they did not look for literal fulfillments of the Old Testament promises. Therefore their eschatology (teaching about “last things” or the end time) was “amillennial.”
For a Catholic explanation of their view of the End Times, see: Are We Living in the Last Days?
- Reformation Eschatology
The Reformation is represented by Sardis, the fifth church of this prophecy. As we noted above, it failed to live up to its own standard of “Scripture only,” and continued to hold the amillennial view of the future which they thought would result in a godly church/state union to which Christ could eventually return as King.
John Calvin did introduce a variation to the eschatology the Reformers had inherited from the Catholic Church. He called it “Covenant Theology.” This viewpoint considers all of history as the development of three overarching theological covenants–the covenants of redemption, of works, and of grace. In their system, the covenants include the return of Christ, resurrection of the dead, and the Great White Throne Judgment, but no literal 1000 year Millennium.
It was common for the Reformers to consider the Catholic Church, with its church/state alliances, the evil last world empire of the Book of Revelation, and to claim that the Pope was the Antichrist.
A completely new view of the future was invented during the Reformation period by the Jesuits, a new Catholic order that we will explore next. It was called Preterism (from the Latin praeter–meaning “past.”) Versions of this theory relate most, or even all, of the Book of Revelation to the events of the 1st Century, revolving around the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and/or the persecutions of the Roman Empire. It was presented as an alternative to the growing belief that the Pope was Antichrist. Preterism was later adopted by some Protestants.
- Later Developments in Eschatology
When we study the next church [Philadelphia] in Revelation 3 we will see that there was a strong return to the literal interpretation of prophecy, resulting in a renewed interest in the Rapture of the church and the development of end time events. It was also a boon to evangelism and the missionary movement.