Approaches to Understanding the Prophetic Texts
There are historically four approaches to the interpretation of the prophetic texts. It is important that we understand these methods of interpretation regarding the book of Daniel, the Olivet Discourse, and the book of the Revelation, as well as other prophetic passages found throughout the Scriptures.
These four approaches are known as the futurist, the historical, the spiritual, and the preterist. Allow me to summarize these views:
- Most of the prophetic texts are to be fulfilled in the future.
- Prophetic text will come to fulfillment at the close of the church age just prior to the rapture and earthly millennium (premillennialism) or the second coming (amillennialism).
- Many of the prophecies are to occur in designated order.
- The events described in the prophetic texts were in the future at the time of writing, but refer to events destined to take place throughout the history of the Church.
- Instead of looking solely to the future for their fulfillment, we should also search for meaning.
- The events are not to be thought of in time sequence, within the pages of history.
(3) Spiritual (Symbolic or Idealist)
- Some of the events are being fulfilled now.
- They refer to truths that are timeless in nature, not to singular historical events.
- The events described were taking place during and near the time of writing.
- Since the events were near the time of writing, they are now in the past.
I believe all of these views have varying degrees of merit. The futurist view addresses the issue of the prophetic texts which remain to be fulfilled, but it ignores certain “time frame references” (Matt. 10:23, 16:27-29, 23:36, 24:34), which the preterist view speaks to. The historical view, which was quite prominent among the Reformers, takes into account the full scope of Church history addressing both the fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled prophecies. The spiritual approach sees the symbolic nature in many of the prophetic texts and their application to all generations.
The Problem of Imminency
Regardless of the millennial position one takes, the problem of the “time frame references” must be addressed. R.C. Sproul has stated, “The issues raised with respect to the time frame references of the New Testament to the parousia are vitally important not only for eschatology but for the future debate over the credibility of Sacred Scripture”.
The purely futuristic approach to prophecy either ignores, or circumvents certain passages which are declared to be “near”, “at hand”, or “about to take place”. In other words, they fail to address the time frame references of the text.
This futuristic approach virtually dismisses the significance of what occurred in A.D.70. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Old Covenant system. It reads all prophecy as coming to fulfillment at the close of the church age. It ignores Jesus’ words of Matthew 24:34 which states “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
The preterist approach, on the other hand sees some events taking place in or around A.D.70. They view the term “last days” (as opposed to “the last day”) referring to the end of the Old Testament priesthood, the sacrificial system, and the temple in Jerusalem (Matt. 24:2). Hebrews 8:13 tell us, the Old Covenant was “becoming obsolete and ready to disappear”.
An “extreme” preterist approach, on the other hand, places all prophetic passages within the context of 70 A.D., meaning that all have been fulfilled, including the Resurrection of the Dead and the Second Coming.
“The Last Days”
It is imperative that we examine the phrase “the last days” as to its usage in the New Testament. What were the New Testament writers referring to when they used this and similar terms?
“And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind...” (Acts 2:17)
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.” (II Tim. 3:1)
“...in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son...” (Heb. 1:2)
“It is in the last days that you have stored up treasure!” (James 5:3)
“Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come...” (II Peter 3:3)
“In the last time there will be mockers...” (Jude 18)
“Children, it is the last hour; and just as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know it is the last hour.” (I John 2:18)
What does the term “last days” refer to? Does it refer to that period of time preceding the Second Coming?
Does it refer to that period of time between Christ’s Ascension and the Second Advent? Or does it refer to the “last days” of the Old Covenant system, which was “passing away” (Heb. 8:13).
It is evident from some of these passages that the writers believed they were living in the “last days”. If this phrase refers to that period preceding the Second Coming we must conclude that they were wrong.
I believe that this phrase “the last days” when examined in the light of other passages concerning “the Coming of the Lord” (Matt. 10:23, 16:27-28, James 5:8) is in reference to “the last days” of the Old Covenant system and the “Coming of the Lord” in judgment upon Israel. I believe the writer of the book of Hebrews is referencing this when he speaks about "that which is growing old and obsolete, and ready to disappear" (Heb. 8:13).
I hasten to add at this point that the phrase “the last day”, which is used exclusively by Jesus in the Gospel of John, refers to the end of time and is always linked with the Resurrection of the Dead and the Final Judgment (John 6:39-40, 44, 54, 12:48).