Why Don’t We Talk More About the End Times?
Below is an approximate transcript of Pastor Simmons’s answer (see the video above) to a question about the place of eschatology in Resurrection’s preaching and teaching ministry.
Here is a question we received by email:
Why are the end times passages/prophesies not studied? I very much appreciate all of God’s word and the teaching and sermons regarding most of the 66 books of the Bible, but the book of Revelation seems to be skimmed over. We pray for the Lord to come and come quickly, but as a church shouldn’t we be preparing ourselves for the end days by knowing the Christian’s role so that we can stand strong? Or, is the stance taken by the church that the church will be raptured before the tribulation period and therefore we do not need to understand the prophesies given in Revelation?
This is a good question, and it’s actually fairly common for people to get this impression from Reformed and Presbyterian churches—not because Reformed Christians don’t think eschatology is important! Eschatology is actually very important, central even, to Reformed theology and to the way we read the whole Bible! The reason people get the impression that Reformed churches don’t talk about the end times very much is because we talk about them differently from other Evangelical churches, especially dispensational churches, which have set the tone for end-times discussions in American Christianity in the past couple hundred years.
So let me give kind of a two-part answer to this question.
First, I want to point out some evidence that eschatology (talking about the end-times) is actually a more frequent and major topic and theme in Resurrection’s preaching, teaching, theology, ministry, and so on than you might think.
Second, I want to explain why it can seem like Reformed churches don’t talk very much about the end times. Again, that’s a common impression, and there are very good and interesting reasons for that.
Eschatology Is Actually Central To Reformed Theology and Ministry
So first, let me give some concrete evidence that we actually think and talk and teach about eschatology more (and more often) at Resurrection than first impressions might indicate. One place to start could be our fall conference last year, The Future of Everything: What the Bible Really Says About the End Times, and Why It Matters. So, our fall conference topic was eschatology, end-times. (And by the way, I would still recommend the book by that conference speaker, William Boekestein, who wrote The Future of Everything, for an outstanding short summary of a Reformed, biblical, and very applicational/practical approach to eschatology.)
But you could say, alright, you relegated eschatology to a conference topic because you don’t want to talk about it in the church’s ordinary, everyday ministry. Do we think that eschatology is this special, isolated subject that we talk about all by itself and that doesn’t really have any impact on the everyday life and ministry of the church? Absolutely not!
Eschatology is actually integral to Resurrection’s ministry. To begin with, of course, I talk about eschatology in preaching whenever the last days are the main subject of the text. For example, when I preached through Matthew we spent a lot of time on Jesus’ end-times teaching in chapter 22, 24, and 25. In the parable of the wedding feast, his answer to the disciples’ question, “When will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” the coming of the Son of Man, and so on, the parable of the ten virgins, the sheep and the goats—in that whole stretch of the Olivet Discourse, the end times were really front and center.
When I preached on the first four minor prophets, what was the big theme that kept coming up time after time after time, especially in the prophecy of Joel? The Day of the Lord. In fact, Joel is a great place to go to see how the Bible (and the New Testament apostles in particular) relate the temporal judgments on Old Testament Israel, the inauguration of the last days in the first coming of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the consummation of the last days at the second coming when Jesus returns.
So those are a couple of examples where, in the course of ordinary preaching straight through books of the Bible, the topic of the end times has been a major, central theme in the text, and I’ve preached it that way. Now, it’s true, I haven’t preached through Revelation yet, but I’m looking forward very much to doing that eventually. Lord willing, we will get there, and that will be a very fruitful study.
But we don’t just talk about eschatology when it happens to be front-and-center in the text. The return of Christ is always in the background when we think about the interpretation and application of any passage. If you listen for it I think you’ll find that the return of Christ comes up pretty often, especially in application, in all kinds of places where you might not expect it, because that’s what we’re living towards as the people of God. And even when it’s not explicit in a sermon, it’s always in the background as I think about the big story of the Bible and how any passage fits into the grand sweep of redemptive history from creation to consummation, Genesis to Revelation.
Reformed Christians Talk About the End Times Differently from Our Dispensational Brothers and Sisters
But I also want to explain why I think it’s quite normal for folks to get a very different impression, to think that we don’t talk about eschatology, that our theology and everyday ministry doesn’t reflect a high priority on understanding and studying the end times. The reason is very similar to the reason folks from a charismatic background often get the false impression that Reformed Christians don’t talk very much about the Holy Spirit. It’s not because it’s true; we talk about the Holy Spirit all the time, in every worship service, in pretty much every sermon. John Calvin, (definitely a cessationist) has been called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit.” But here’s the thing: we talk about the Holy Spirit very differently from charismatics. Our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the Holy Spirit is different from that of charismatic theology. And so because we don’t talk very much about speaking in tongues and other modern-day miraculous and revelatory gifts, many people get the false impression that we don’t care very much about the Holy Spirit. No, it’s not true! In fact, the reality is that a Reformed doctrine of the Holy Spirit is much more Biblical, much richer, more robust, more satisfying, and much more likely to produce God-honoring worship and personal holiness than charismatic teaching.
The same thing is true for eschatology. The predominant model for teaching eschatology in the American church over the last couple hundred years has been what’s called dispensational premillennialism. And in the last hundred years in particular, this has taken a very particular form in evangelical sort of “popular culture,” one very famous expression of this back in the nineties being the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. Now, there has been a lot of debate within this theological movement, among different branches of dispensationalism, regarding the end times. For example, often you’ll hear the question, are you pre-trib or post-trib? Do you think the rapture will take place before or after the seven-year tribulation? And then you come to a Reformed church like Resurrection and you don’t hear those questions being asked.
Dispensational premillennialism also features a very particular approach to reading both Old Testament and New Testament prophecy, which is to try to find very specific evidence of prophecy fulfillment in particular current events. There are many problems with this approach to prophecy which I’ll have to deal with another time, but suffice it to say a proper approach to prophecy, a Biblical approach that follows the way the Bible teaches us that it is to be interpreted, does not embrace this kind of quest to find one-to-one prophecy fulfillments in current events. That’s usually a misuse, a misreading of most biblical prophecy.
But again, if you come from that kind of background and you start getting to know a Reformed church, you might think, these people are completely ignoring eschatology! Why? Because they’re not interpreting current events in terms of very specific prophecy fulfillment, they’re not talking about restoring ethnic Jews to the land of Israel or rebuilding a temple in modern-day Jerusalem. They’re not talking about the rapture and a seven-year tribulation. Why not?
The fact is that that Reformed church is not ignoring or denigrating eschatology. It’s that is taking an unfamiliar approach to eschatology that is very different from the mainstream American evangelical church. It’s rejecting an approach to eschatology that is very popular but is not biblical, that is built on a fairly recent theological system (dispensationalism) that is not a reliable way of understanding the big story of the Scriptures or interpreting the book of Revelation and other biblical prophecy.
In Reformed theology and a Reformed approach to the Bible (which I think is the most biblical approach to the Bible) what you find is not charts and timelines and trying to sort out exactly what events are going to happen in what order in the days and years immediately preceding the second coming. What you find is a heavy emphasis on the end times, but one that is more integrated, that sees the last days as something that started with the first coming of Christ—that we’re living in the last days now and have been ever since the time of the apostles (that’s how James could say to the rich all the way back in the first century, you’re storing up treasure in the last days)—so the last days started with Jesus’ first coming, but we’re looking forward to their completion, their consummation, at Jesus’ second coming, which is always imminent throughout the life of the church (it could occur at any moment). We call this inaugurated eschatology—the last days have been inaugurated in Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, but not yet brought to completion by the Parousia, the Second Coming. This is why we so often use the phrase, “Already, but not yet.” That’s the best four-word summary of the New Testament’s eschatology. Already, but not yet.
Now, you may hear all this and think, either, “That’s different from what I’ve been taught about eschatology in the past; I’m not sure that’s right”; or you may think, “I still don’t see it; it still sounds to me like Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, just don’t care very much about eschatology.” Well, either way, I hope you’ll keep the things I’ve just outlined in mind as you continue sitting under Resurrection’s ministry and compare what you hear diligently with Scripture. Listen for end-times language where you might not ordinarily expect it (“last days,” “the Day of the Lord,” “already-not-yet,” “inauguration,” “the coming of the kingdom”). And always listen from every corner of the Scriptures for the hope that we have as we joyfully expect the return of our Savior, and the urgency of faith, repentance, and obedience as we reverently expect the return of our Lord.