December 12, 2017

Preaching the Gospel from Prophetic Literature

An approach to preaching NOW about the Future

Stephen J. Hankins


I began my Christian journey during an era of eschatological sensationalism, characterized by books such as The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and punctuated by Christian “B” movies about the rapture and other future cataclysmic events, allegedly foretold in Revelation. (As it turns out, some were and some weren’t.)

Occasionally an old-school “prophecy preacher” hauled huge fantastically colored and illustrated flip charts into the church auditorium to regale the brethren with a rapidfire overview of what might begin “even this very hour,” before any of us had a chance to get home and sort out the barrage of data that had been imparted to us from parts of the Bible we all were ashamed we didn’t know better. Remarkably, God in His wisdom, faithfulness, and mercy used those means to reach people with the gospel, strengthen the saints, and spark my interest in prophecy, an interest which has persisted to this day.

In fact, that interest has not just persisted, it has intensified. But my interest lies in something other than the obscure or the fantastic found in Scripture about the future. It lies in a substantial body of truth concerning the future that is intended to powerfully impact my walk with Christ today. That interest has been further magnified by the responsibility I have to pass on a correct understanding of that vast body of truth about the future as a preacher of the Word of God.

Even more specifically, I’ve come to understand that faithful preaching of the gospel always looks forward into the future for God’s continued mercy in salvation, even in the end times. It announces hope for the believer’s complete deliverance from sin at Christ’s return. It proclaims the joyous prospect of our Savior’s ultimate victory in the world over sin. And it boldly announces the coming of the Chief Justice of the Universe, Jesus Christ, who will righteously judge every man, wrong every right, and forever solve the problem of evil. All of this is the proclamation of incredibly good news through the prophetic literature of Scripture.

A Faithful Stewardship

We all know that all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable, including eschatological passages, leading to the essential equipping of the saints for ministry (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). We know that some passages are “hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16) and may be tragically twisted by the unlearned to their own destruction; and that certainly some of those passages would include the great eschatological texts of the Old and New Testaments. Further, we know that a good steward of the mysteries of God must “be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1, 2), apportioning to the people of God just the right part of the revelation of God at the right time in the right quantity and manner most fitting for that moment in the life of the church. Could that faithful stewardship possibly exclude or even diminish what by some estimates amounts to 25% (one in every four verses) of the contents of the New Testament? Well, not really.

Every good “household manager” (what the word “steward” means in Greek) must first assess his supplies, i.e., what he has to give to those in the household. So for starters, a good review of your “resources” would be to reread the sections on the doctrine of eschatology in a few conservative systematic theologies. You will find help in Charles Ryrie’s simple work Basic Theology (one volume), Lewis Sperry Chafer’s Systematic Theology (eight volumes), and Norman Geisler’s newer four-volume work Systematic Theology. All of these take a premillennial, pretribulational approach to end-times events, which best reflects the fruit of thorough exegetical work in the prophetic Scriptures. My recommendation of these works assumes that most of my readers follow a dispensational approach to the interpretation to the Scriptures, which leads inevitably to the premillennial, pretribulational approach to the doctrine of future things.

Beyond these works you can move on to more specialized books that deal with particular future events or treat the books of the New Testament that contain the highest concentration of eschatological passages. Works like Mal Couch’s (ed.) Dictionary of Premillennial Theology and J. Dwight Pentecost’s famed work Things to Come are valuable. Alva J. McClain’s work The Greatness of the Kingdom and Gerald Stanton’s book Kept from the Hour are also important and useful contributions to this field of Scripture study. H. Wayne House in his helpful work Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament concisely organizes comparative information about millennial positions and approaches to interpreting the Book of Revelation.

For specific commentaries on Matthew, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and Revelation, all books of the New Testament which contain substantial eschatological passages, consult Cyril Barber’s The Minister’s Library (two volumes), Stewart Custer’s Tools for Preaching and Teaching the Bible, and James Rosscup’s work Commentaries for Bible Expositors. These are annotated bibliographies of wide reputation which list, with descriptive comments, the most valuable commentaries available for each of these books of the Bible.

With a ready mind, steely discipline, careful attention to the text of Scripture, and these resources, the good steward will always come away with more to say than he can possibly preach in dozens of sermons on the end times. Think “series”; this is what it will take to get the job done with any thoroughness when preaching about the end times.

A Careful Strategy

Right Motives.

As preachers, we are always concerned about why people do what they do, aren’t we? It is not enough to know what they’ve done; we want to know the reasons for their behavior. Well, what is good for the people is good for the pastor—why do you want to preach prophecy? It certainly can’t be just to present fascinating future phenomena, with you channeling future events like a sort of homiletical crystal ball.

Further, a motive as base as just wanting to show you know a lot about something really obscure is barely worth mentioning . . . but then we all know the human heart, don’t we? Triumphantly and honestly you say, “I want to preach prophecy so I can be a faithful steward of the Word of God.” Excellent, you’re a fast learner. We should also hunger to proclaim the good news through prophecy because of the need for salvation and sanctification it engenders.

A Cultivation of Spiritual Qualities.

Let’s go deeper now to what preaching prophecy will do for your church members. The gospel is a message of God’s grace for salvation, for suffering, for service, and for sanctification. In this final achievement of the gospel of grace, sanctification, you will find a great motive for proclaiming prophetic texts. There is an important set of qualities mentioned in Scripture cultivated by preaching prophecy to believers. Preaching the “any moment” return of Christ gives a spiritual urgency about setting a holy example in this brief life, according to 2 Peter 3:11–14. It helps the believer cultivate both an other-worldly focus and a hope for the glorious deliverance of His coming, as stated in Titus 2:13. The sure future justice of the end-times judgment and the reward that awaits faithful believers cause the saint of God to cry out with John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” as stated in the second-to-last verse in the New Testament, Revelation 22:20.

Avoiding mistakes.

Every wise preaching strategy anticipates special temptations and “ditches” that should be avoided along the road of right Biblical interpretation of any type of Biblical literature, especially prophecy.

First, when preaching from end-times prophetic sections, stay focused on Christ and avoid citing specific current leaders, centers of power, political movements, or military weaponry as possible fulfillments of particular prophetic passages. The Bible is virtually never that specific in end-times prophecies. This approach is unwarranted sensationalism that unwholesomely and unnecessary stirs up the imagination of the saints.

Second, setting dates for the rapture of believers or the coming of Christ at His second advent is clearly an error, as plainly taught in Matthew 24:36.

Third, using the rapture as a terminus point for the possible salvation of your hearers, and thereby urging an immediate decision for Christ, is based on just one interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2 and is a misstep, in my judgment. You may hold that interpretation, but others can advance strong arguments against it, so be careful. In the end, you may undermine your own credibility as a preacher by using this evangelistic device. It is always good to keep in mind that the Tribulation period will be a time of great salvation according to Revelation 7, where millions are described as washing their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. That horrific time of the wrath of the Lamb will also be a time of His unparalleled mercy in salvation.

Fourth, the 2 Thessalonians 2 passage is example of another important problem to avoid when preaching prophecy. Don’t be overbearing about your views of particular passages; this is difficult material, and, in some cases, it is pretty obscure. You don’t have to have the final word or always be right on all the details in prophetic passages—just fully persuaded in your own mind about your interpretation and reasonable with others who disagree with you.

Fifth, the figurative language of prophecy calls for special care in assigning accurate meaning. Prefer a literal meaning, but recognize that what you are looking at could represent someone or something else. Ask yourself if the text makes sense if you take it “literalistically,” giving proper weight to the fact that the end times will be a unique era with many first-time phenomena. On the other hand, do keep in mind that the first-century authors were doing their best in the limited framework of their own experience to describe what they were seeing in their visions, and much of what they were seeing was, uh, shall we say, really hard to describe. If you decide that what you are looking at must be symbolic, look carefully to the immediate context for clues about the meaning and do thorough crossreferencing using a concordance to see if this potential symbol is explained elsewhere in the Bible.

Sixth, don’t omit major events in the chronological scheme of the end times in your preaching. Include (a) the Resurrection and Rapture, (b) the Tribulation, (c) A rmageddon, (d) the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, (e) the Judgment of the Nations, (f) the Millennium, (g) the Battle of Gog and Magog, (h) the Great White Throne Judgment, and (i) the New Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem, i.e., the Eternal State. There are many other lesser events and personalities to preach about from prophetic passages, but these are the main events. And when you preach these main events, always stay focused on Christ.

A Focus on Christ—Just Like the Book of Revelation

When writing a teacher’s textbook on the Book of Revelation for our high school Bible curriculum published by Bob Jones University Press some years ago, I came to a firsthand discovery that altered my approach to this crowning book of the New Testament canon forever. After reading and rereading the book and scouring the commentaries, a beautiful emphasis and structure began to surface, one that I was discovering, not inventing.

The Book of Revelation is a fascinating narrative of the end of time as we know it and the beginning of the Eternal State, beginning with chapter 4 and ending in chapter 22. These chapters follow an introduction to the book and a striking vision of Christ (chapter 1) and letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. These churches are representative of the cumulative qualities of the church in every century since Pentecost (chapters 2–3).

The highly symbolic narrative beginning in chapter 4 is periodically interrupted by striking heavenly visions that move John out of time into an eternal perspective. These visions are followed anew each time by the book’s chronological flow reasserting itself. (House’s book mentioned earlier gives some helpful charts about this literary structure.)

Christ Dominates

What you cannot avoid seeing is that this master work of apocalyptic literature is dominated by Christ. No fewer than twenty-five separate titles and descriptions of the Son of God are presented in its twenty-two chapters. The book begins with the phrase “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” which is likely an example of a stylistic device in which the author is being intentionally obscure to communicate two ideas—it is a revelation about Jesus Christ and given by Jesus Christ.

Christ, the High Priest and Head of the Church

Then, just a few introductory verses are followed by an astounding vision of the risen, glorified Christ who is the High Priest of our Profession and the Head of the Church (see 1:18–20). What then follows are the letters to His churches, of which He is the Head (chapters 2–3).

Christ, the Chief Justice of the Universe

Chapters 4 and 5 take us to the throne room of God, where Christ the great Lion-Lamb takes the seven-sealed scroll of judgment and unleashes the first of three series of seven judgments that cascade upon the earth, each series rising out of the preceding one. And thus begins “the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come” (6:16b, 17). This wrath continues through to Armageddon in Revelation 19. In all this we see Christ the Great Judge, the Chief Justice of the Universe, initiating His final solution to the problem of evil, which has plagued mankind from the beginning of time for millennia.

Christ, the King

Chapters 20 through 22 fold the earlier roles of Christ in the book into His role as absolute Sovereign. He reigns in the Millennium and at the Great White Throne (chapter 20). He reigns with the Father in the New Jerusalem, the capital of the New Universe (chapters 21–22). He reigns forever in the hearts of His people.

John wrote poignantly about his encounter with an angelic messenger in Revelation 19:10, after seeing a vision of the triumphant Marriage Supper of the Lamb. He said, “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

Here is the key that unlocks the door to the beauty of the prophecy we are called to preach—the heart of all prophecy is the witness about our Lord, our Savior, our God. His salvation, His coming, His character, His justice, and His governance—that is what prophecy is about and that is what we are to proclaim. Worthy is the Lamb!

Stephen J. Hankins, PhD, is Associate Dean of the Bob Jones University Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • January / February 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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