Our Past and Future Hope – Introduction

This is the introduction to Our Past and Future Hope: Reintroducing a Traditional Faith-Building Eschatology by Jason Giles. The Contents page is here.

The paperback and Kindle versions are now available here.

The PDF/Epub ebook version is available here.

Over a decade ago, I sat down alone in a quiet place to read the Bible yet again as I tried (and often failed) to do faithfully each day. Another day, another devotion. Admittedly, at this point it was primarily out of duty- an obligation I felt committed to ever since I got saved as a kid. Even though I prayed for understanding before I started, the last thing I expected was to be surprised by God’s Word. You see, I had read the entire Bible at least twice by now, and growing up in a faithful Christian family that never missed church, I naively felt like I understood it all well enough.

Yet here I was going through the book of Daniel, having just read chapter nine with the ‘seventy weeks’ prophecy. Frankly, I was sick of it, and I finally had to admit that I had no idea what any of it meant. In desperation, I broke down and decided to do the unthinkable- search for a commentary on the internet. This was a bold move for me, having been conditioned to be wary of commentaries. Why do we need to hear the opinion of some smarmy academic, lording their knowledge over us in their ivory tower, all head and no heart? We have the Holy Spirit to show us what it means, and that’s all we really need, right?

This was my ‘Ethiopian eunuch’ moment:

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:26-31)

I was finally ready to humbly admit that I did not understand what I was reading, and that I wouldn’t be able to unless someone explained it to me.

The commentary I ended up stumbling upon was by a man named Fred Miller. He explained the historical interpretation of the Seventy Week prophecy, and how this astounding prediction was fulfilled with the ministry and death of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.1 As a matter of fact, the timing in this prophecy is so precise, that the Jewish calendar was inexplicably changed centuries ago by over 150 years from the Biblical dating of the world, and now it points to the failed messianic rebellion of Bar Kokhba in 132 AD.2 Anything, anyone other than Jesus the Nazarene!

I was floored, and my jaw was literally hanging open. How did I miss this before? Wasn’t this just another prophecy that we were waiting on God to fulfill? Like many other prophecies in the Old and New Testaments, I was taught that we were waiting for the Rapture, when Jesus would take us away from this evil world, and then Antichrist would appear. Seven short but devastating years later, we would return with the victorious Son of Man to destroy his enemies and rule with him for 1000 years. How could this passage be fulfilled already?

But it made so much more sense now. The message delivered to Daniel by the angel Gabriel was suddenly cohesive, instead of being split apart as I had been taught before. The beginning and end of the prophecy were clearly and spectacularly marked by historical events, all recorded in other parts of the Bible! The Messiah came precisely when this passage predicted he would come, and he was killed just as it said he would be. And bittersweetly, Jerusalem and the Second Temple (still future from Daniel) would once again face devastation, even as Daniel was hoping and praying for its restoration (we will go over Daniel chapter nine in more detail later on in the book).

A Dialogue with Tradition

As hesitant as I was to consult a commentary, Miller did not provide some kind of gnosis or secret knowledge to unlock the meaning of the text. Instead of continuing to simply have a two-way conversation- just ‘me and the Bible’- I had now brought in a third party: the tradition of biblical interpretation. In his book Reading the Bible with Giants: How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts, Dr. Parris puts it this way:

As members of the church this three-way dialogue is very significant. After all, we claim that God’s interactions with humanity are recorded in this book we call the Bible and that our personal faith and Christian community rest on it. We believe that through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, God uses this book to inspire, console, correct, and guide us. If we claim that God speaks to us through the Bible we should be open to what others claim God has revealed to them. Especially if we consider that in the two thousand years since the church was inaugurated there have been countless individuals who had sharper minds, were better readers, and were more devout than we are. We should be grateful to sit at their feet!3

Just as the Ethiopian eunuch invited Phillip to sit with him and explain how Jesus fulfilled the suffering servant passages in Isaiah, I had invited the history and tradition of biblical interpretation to give me their take on Daniel 9. As it turns out, the view I had been taught from childhood was a relatively new idea, not the uniform understanding I had imagined it to be from time immemorial. About 150 years ago a completely different interpretation was taught, and it had been interpreted that way for centuries before then. How could I have known that, unless someone told me?

Please do not get me wrong- there is nothing wrong with the two-way dialogue many of us have with the Scriptures daily. It is a vital part of our personal devotion, and the Holy Spirit speaks through them to guide us. But there are benefits from engaging with our tradition “in a receptive and critical manner—to bring tradition to the table, so to speak, as an active dialogue partner when we read the Bible.”4 We do not simply accept what tradition tells us whole cloth, but we ask questions and learn from the answers: “What have been some of the best interpretations and applications of this particular story? What mistakes have others made when interpreting this passage? Have the rules changed for what counts as a valid interpretation over time? Have others read the text in the same manner as we do today?”5 Just as the noble Bereans exhaustively searched the Scriptures to make sure that what Paul was preaching to them was true, we also check to ensure that what we’re being taught jibes with the historical and grammatical context of the Bible. Having a three-way dialogue with traditional interpretation is simply another tool in the chest for rigorously engaging with God’s Word, along with others like historical studies, background, word studies, grammar, narrative analysis, etc.

Sadly, in modern times, committed evangelical Christians have been conditioned to be deeply distrustful of any outside input, shunning anyone and anything that dares to intrude in our one-on-one conversation with the Bible. We are taught to avoid commentaries and be extremely wary of even conservative Christian universities, which are seen as little more than ‘apostate factories’ where our faith goes to die. We rigorously adhere to the misnomer of solo scriptura– our faith is to be informed by the Scriptures alone- instead of sola scriptura, in which the Bible is our top authority on issues of doctrine, with tradition and church authority still playing an important but subservient role.

These opposing views of the role of tradition are defined in Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life as “‘Tradition I’… the view that tradition is a tool to aid in the faithful interpretation of Scripture, with Scripture remaining the only source of infallible divine revelation, to which the tradition is always subject.”6 This was the predominant view of the church during its Early Period, and this was the position taken by the Reformers. In the 12th-15th centuries, a different view of tradition was innovated by the Roman Catholic Church called “‘Tradition II’. It asserts that there are two distinct sources of divine revelation, Scripture and church tradition, with the latter being handed down either orally or through customary church practices.”7

In response to these views of tradition, the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation held to what has been described as “‘Tradition 0’. It exalts the individual’s interpretation of Scripture over that of the corporate interpretation of past generations of Christians.”8 This was the view relayed to me in my upbringing in the American Evangelical world. Many modern Christians still mistake sola scriptura for this view of altogether rejecting tradition, when in truth, the Reformers “had a very positive understanding of tradition.”9

A Lack of Understanding

We have denied traditional biblical interpretation from entering our dialog with the Scriptures for so long that it has had devastating effects on our interpretation of many passages. Nowhere is this more evident than in our understanding of prophetic and apocalyptic portions of the Bible. We are typically only nominally aware of the modern popular view mentioned above: a secret rapture of the elect, a seven-year tribulation, the triumphant return of Christ, reigning with him for 1000 years. Most of these beliefs are gleaned from popular culture (novels and movies like the Left Behind series) rather than the Bible, so we can hardly recognize their scriptural origins. When we encounter prophetic passages we don’t understand, our instinct is to assume they are unfulfilled without so much as taking a glance at history or traditional interpretation. “I don’t understand this fully because it’s still in the future,” we tell ourselves.

Assuming so many promises are yet unfulfilled, our individualistic approach to interpretation causes our imaginations to run wild. Fear-driven speculation is evident by our enormous amount of misguided, crapshoot guesses. Antichrist lurks around every corner, and each popular new leader of the opposing political party is accused of being the one. Or maybe it’s a foreign leader- is he Islamic, or is he European? Nations entering any sort of pact becomes the harbinger of the New World Order in which the Antichrist will rise to power. What’s the latest in Israel- aren’t they going to rebuild the Temple soon? One more recent egregious example is the mark of the beast: one moment it’s a computer chip implanted into our skin, the next it’s nanomachines in a vaccine, or maybe it’s the latest mobile phone data standard. We give ear to the wildest conspiracies, our eyes glued to the headlines, eager to discover the next possible fulfillment as we’re ushered into the apocalypse.

Worst of all, we’ve lost sight of what God has done, and the promises he has already fulfilled. Going back to the example of the Seventy Weeks prophecy in Daniel 9, which was traditionally interpreted as being fulfilled by Christ’s mission on earth, and finished with his death: “to finish disobedience, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy” (Daniel 9:24b). The modern popular interpretation pushes these things far into the future, and severs the continuity of the message. Now 69 of the ‘weeks’ are said to have passed, with a pause of close to 2000 years, and the 70th still to come. This amazing time prophecy completely loses its precision, utterly draining it of the faith-building wonder God intended it to have. When viewing this prophecy through the modern lens, its once powerful message simply whimpers away, becoming yet another perplexing and incomplete prophecy as it gets thrown into the pile with the others.

Ultimately, the burden of our lost vision becomes almost too much to bear. We continue to read the Bible faithfully, but more from duty than awe. We eagerly await the return of our Savior, yet we might start to wonder what the plan really is. Why did he tell us what would happen so far into the future- what is the deal with this 2000-year holding period? In the past, there was said to be 400 years of silence before the coming of the Messiah, when no prophet spoke; today, we have five times that amount. Perhaps I suppressed many of these thoughts out of fear of being irreverent, but if I were honest, a part of me wondered what God is waiting for. Maybe you feel the same, to some degree at least.

Or maybe you’ve just given up trying to understand these difficult prophecies in Scripture altogether. It’s all too mysterious, there are too many conflicting opinions, so much confusion- what’s the point in trying to figure it out? We joke that we’re ‘pan-millennial: it will all pan out in the end.’ Besides, many of us know believers that are fixated on the end times, obsessed with trying to pinpoint the identity of the Antichrist, the mark of the beast, or even the date of the return of Christ. So many have insisted on this date or that, this world event is a sign, the next ‘blood moon’ is the one, even extrabiblical phenomena like the end of the Aztec calendar become proof. Time passes, the dates come and go, the supposed Antichrist does his time on the world stage and then fades into obscurity, and every sign ends up becoming just another blip in the end. Each failed prediction becomes another mark of shame on the body of Christ. Why on Earth would we want to be a part of that madness?

Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

It is not so hopeless of course. When we consult the historical biblical interpretation, giving the giants who came before us a seat at the table, letting them have a chance to speak and entering a three-way dialog with them, we can rediscover the wonder and delight of not only the prophetic passages, but all of God’s Holy and Powerful Word. When I humbly realized that men and women much better than myself in so many ways have wrestled with the same passages for centuries and came away with brilliant insights, my burden was much lighter- we share the load of interpretation. I was no longer on my own, using solo scriptura. Instead, I was now practicing sola scriptura as the Reformers intended, with tradition aiding me in interpretation, while the Bible remains our sole, final authority.

By gazing into the Scriptures with God’s people beside me, I started to recognize more and more of God’s faithfulness to his people throughout history. Our God is the One who keeps his promises to the letter. In fact, some prophecies are fulfilled so precisely that secular scholars insist that they had to have been written after the fact, due to how closely they mirror actual events in history!10 The more I realized this, the more I began to notice a pattern in how God speaks to his people through prophetic Scripture: he never leaves us without an idea of what he intends to accomplish in the world, especially as it pertains to his people. Remember the 400 years of silence I mentioned earlier? It’s true that there were no new Scriptures being written in that time (although Maccabees came close), nor was there a prophet speaking in God’s name, yet those years were anything but silent. The prophecies in the Book of Daniel give a clear picture of the empires that would rise and fall, the wars they would wage, the persecution and ultimate victory the Jews would go through. They spoke of the Messiah to come, the fate of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the beginning of God’s kingdom on Earth.

When they are understood in this way, these prophecies represent ‘a small but exact map’ of God’s plan and providence for his people.11 Before the 400 years of silence, God provided this map to his people so that their faith would be strengthened as they watched history unfold as told by the God who sees and knows all things, past, present, and future. As I began to see that not all of these prophecies are to be pushed into the future as is commonly taught today, my own faith and hope grew in leaps and bounds when I understood God’s faithfulness to his people in the past.

God is consistent, there is ‘no shadow of turning in Thee.’ Just as God filled the so-called silent years with clear examples of what he intended to accomplish throughout them, he has not snatched this map from us. “Now as Daniel makes up the hiatus or defect of the history of the Old Testament, so the Revelation of John supplies that of the New, by leading us down from Christ’s first to his second coming.”12 Revelation is a map to us in the same way that Daniel was a map to God’s people before the first coming of Christ. This contradicts what we are taught about Revelation today, however- the most common refrain is that none of it has happened (futurism/dispensationalism), or less commonly that nearly all of it has been fulfilled (preterism/partial-preterism). There is also the teaching that none of it pertains to historical events (idealism). What good is a map that shows us only the destination, but no clear idea of where we are currently? Likewise, the map that shows us only the starting and ending points is nearly as useless, as is the map that only shows us the type of terrain we might expect to encounter along the way. No, God gave us a useful map just as he gave his people before, and “these two books give us the exact plan of a divine history.”13

A Traditional Interpretation

This book is an introduction to the traditional interpretation of prophecy in Scripture, most often called historicism. A historicist “sees the book of Revelation as a prewritten record of the course of history from the time of John to the end of the world. Fulfillment is thus considered to be in progress at present and has been unfolding for nearly two thousand years.”14 This classical approach was the majority view among Protestants from the time of the Reformation to about the middle of the 19th century, and it is the oldest of the four major developed views of understanding Revelation.15 “An abbreviated list of the luminaries of the past who took this view would have to include Huss, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, John Knox, Sir Isaac Newton, John Foxe, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Finney, C. H. Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, E. B. Elliott, H. Grattan Guinness, and Bishop Thomas Newton.”16

Because it is an older view, the best historicist writings are over 100 years old at this point. There are modern authors and commentaries, but they are rare and often not very accessible (more resources for studying the historicist view, old and new, can be found at the end of this book). The purpose of this book is to reintroduce an old but wise understanding of biblical prophecy to the general public in the most accessible way possible. I heartily recommend learning about each of the other views of Revelation- futurism, preterism, and idealism- but there are already plenty of other modern resources available to do this (also found at the end of this book). We will also not be delving too deep into the three different millennial views- premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism- because the Millennium is only explicitly mentioned in one chapter of the Bible (Revelation 20), and besides, historicism is compatible with all three of them.

It is my hope that you will benefit as much as I have from entering a three-way dialog in your study of the Bible and learn by standing on the shoulders of giants. Using traditional interpretation in this way does not mean we blindly accept what we discover, but we engage with theologians from the past (and present, for that matter) using critical thinking. Some might have been strong in one area, and weak or downright wrong in another. We examine their thoughts and insights in light of the context of other Scriptures; we try to understand their own context in the period and area in which they wrote; we identify any connections to our own context. Whether we end up agreeing with them or not, many times we end up learning more about church history, about the development of our beliefs and those of others, and we end up becoming wiser and more empathetic to those around us.

We cannot afford to ignore prophecy in the Bible. According to Peter,

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19‭-‬21 ESV).

The book of Revelation promises a blessing to those who read and hear it (Revelation 1:3). We will not start in Revelation, but in the easiest-to-understand and most agreed-upon parts of Daniel, and other parts of the Old and New Testament. It will become clear that God is faithful to his promises as we focus on fulfilled prophecies, and we will become even more confident in our hope as we look at those yet to be fulfilled. In the end, our faith will be bolstered as we look to Jesus, the very center of our past and future hope.

  1. Fred Miller, “Revelation: a Panorama of the Gospel Age”, 200.
    Available online at http://moellerhaus.com/70week.htm ↩︎
  2. Floyd Nolan Jones, “The Seder Olam Rabbah- Why Jewish Dating is Different”, 42-46.
    Available online at https://assets.answersingenesis.org/doc/articles/cm/Divided.pdf ↩︎
  3. David Paul Parris, “Reading the Bible with Giants: How 2000 Years of Biblical Interpretation Can Shed New Light on Old Texts”, Kindle location 200. ↩︎
  4. Parris, ibid, Kindle location 173. ↩︎
  5. Parris, ibid, Kindle location 200. ↩︎
  6. Heiko Oberman qtd. in Timothy Ward, “Words of Life – Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God”, 144. ↩︎
  7. Oberman qtd. in Ward, ibid, 145. ↩︎
  8. Oberman qtd. in Ward, ibid, 148. ↩︎
  9. Alister McGrath, “Historical Theology – An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought”, 165. ↩︎
  10. “Daniel 11:1-35 is either the most precise and accurate prophecy of the future, fully demonstrating its divine inspiration, or as Porphyry claimed, it is a dishonest attempt to present history as if prophesied centuries earlier. Modern critics of Daniel have not gone much beyond the basic premise of Porphyry, namely, that such detailed prophecy is impossible, and, therefore, absurd and incredible.” John Walvoord, “Daniel- The Key To Prophetic Revelation”, Chapter 11.
    Available online at https://walvoord.com/article/252#P1649_705536 ↩︎
  11. Robert Fleming, “Apocalyptical Key: A Discourse on the Rise and Fall of the Anti-Christ”, 90.
    Available online at https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=zWEJAQAAMAAJ ↩︎
  12. Fleming, ibid, 91. ↩︎
  13. Fleming, ibid, 91. ↩︎
  14. Steve Gregg, “Revelation – Four Views, Revised and Updated”, 13. ↩︎
  15. By ‘views’ I mean ‘frameworks’, not sub-views of the Millennium (see chapter 12 of this book). On the development of the four major views, see Gregg, ibid, 48-55. “…the western fathers of the Ante-Nicene church whose works have survived took a quasi-literal and eschatological approach to the Book of Revelation. They lived, of course, too early in history for them to take a historicist approach, such as that which later arose and which spread the fulfillments of the prophecies over the space of over 1,800 years. Events, which later historicists would view as ancient history, were, in those days, present and future realities. This means that the fathers would have spoken futuristically, even if they were identifying the prophetic events with the same phenomena that historicists, and some preterists, now associate with past fulfillments” (50). Gregg goes on to cover the development of historicism starting in the 9th century, and later modern futurism and preterism in the 16th century. ↩︎
  16. Gregg, ibid, 56. ↩︎