What relevance does the Bible have for us today if so much Bible prophecy has been fulfilled? Preterists get this question asked of them all the time. Historicists claim their approach is the most historically relevant. They also claim that the Historicist approach was almost universally promoted by the Reformers. Calvin was the exception. Much of Calvin’s Daniel commentary is preterist. On the Reformers in general, James Jordan writes the following:
The Reformers, in spite of their greatness, were cultural chauvinists who believed that the history of the human race after the cross focused on Europe, and that Daniel and Revelation were concerned to predict the history of Europe down to their day. Thus, they identified the Papacy as everything bad in the Bible: the Little Horn of Daniel 7, the Abomination of Desolation, the Man of Sin, the Beast, the Great Whore, the Antichrist, etc. Had the Reformers understood Exodus 20:6, that there are thousands of generations ahead for humanity, they might have avoided this kind of subtle, unintentional racism. At any rate, the anti-Papal approach warps most Calvinistic and Lutheran commentaries on Daniel down to the 19th century, and some even until our own day. By the way, John Calvin is the great exception to this approach. Calvin’s approach was preteristic, and very sound.
The Reformers paid little attention to the time indicators in Revelation and elsewhere in the New Testament. They ignored the definition, number, and timing of the many antichrists who were alive in John’s day (1 John 2:18–22; 4:1–3; 2 John 7). For the Historicist, the Papacy is said to be the antichrist. Was the Papacy operating in the first century?
Compare this with preterism. Jesus said that the generation to whom He was speaking would not pass away until all the things He said would happen happened (Matt. 24:33–34). There was a specific prediction about the destruction of the temple, and there was physical evidence that what Jesus predicted happened. The history was not read into the prophecy. The Judaizers understood this well enough by asking “where is the promise of His coming?” (2 Pet. 3:4) What coming? Jesus’ coming in judgment against the temple that was still standing when Peter wrote his letter. For Peter, his time was “the end of all things” (1 Pet. 4:7).
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As history moves forward, the Historicist approach becomes less convincing. Historicist commentators from the 16th century did not envision the French Revolution, the rise of Darwinism, Communism, Adolf Hitler, two world wars, and so much more. These historical events are read into Revelation after the fact. The first readers of Revelation and for many later centuries would have been in the dark as to the meaning of what they were told to “heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
The book would have been meaningless to them. But all of a sudden Revelation is finally understood in the 16th century. And no one seemed to ask the question about the words “shortly” (1:1) and “near“ (22:10). It seems they understood those timing words as applicable to their time because they were fighting the unbiblical Roman Catholic Church. “The position almost always assumes that present interpreters live at the conclusion to history so that all in Revelation leads up to their time just before the end.” Like so many interpreters today, most of the Reformers believed they were living at the prophetic end-point of history. All of the historicist commentaries are hopelessly outdated similar to many futurist commentaries.
In reality, the Papacy was a manifestation of the false church similar to the false church of the Judaizers. Ken Gentry comments:
[T]he Reformers were locked in a literal life-and-death struggle with Romanism. Consequently, they tended to view many judgment passages through the lens of their opposition to Rome. They let application override interpretation in some situations.
Such an exposition is known as an “actualizing interpretation.” “Actualizing interpretations take two forms. In one form the imagery of the Apocalypse is juxtaposed with the interpreter’s own circumstances, whether personal or social, so as to allow the images to inform understanding of contemporary persons and events and to serve as a guide for action”
For instance, we see this in the original Westminster Confession of Faith (25:6) where the Pope is called the Antichrist and the “man of lawlessness.” This not only gives too much credit to Romanism, but clearly misinterprets Scripture. If the Pope were Antichrist, then the papacy existed in the first century, for John confronts the antichrist in the first century (1 Jn 2:18–22). But the Pope cannot be the Antichrist, for John defines the Antichrist as “one who denies the Father and the Son” (1 Jn 2:22), as those who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2 Jn 7). This is clearly not referring to Roman Catholic teaching.
You see, just because certain prophecies have been fulfilled does not mean that they lose their application value.
Futurists have a similar problem. Like the Historicists, futurists dismiss the clear time indicators found in Revelation (e.g., 1:1, 3; 22:10). Once these are delegitimized as being irrelevant to the timing of events, Revelation can be made to mean anything, and it has.
Dispensationalism has a different problem. There is no prophetic relevance before the so-called “rapture of the church.” Prophecy only becomes relevant again during a seven-year period whose start could happen at any moment. We’re told that Jesus is coming soon, that the end is near. All the signs are in place. This can’t be since according to dispensationalists no signs precede the “rapture of the church.” It’s said to be a “signless event.” This hasn’t stopped dispensational prophecy writing from making millions of dollars from books that are all about signs about a position that says no signs precede the rapture.
Preterists take the time indicators seriously. Near means near. Shortly means shortly. “This generation” means what “this generation” means elsewhere in the gospels. The New Testament is filled with prophetic material pointing to its fulfillment within a short period of time. If this is true, then doesn’t that make the New Testament irrelevant? Not at all!
Would we say the same thing about everything written in the Old Testament?
Most if not all of the Old Testament has been fulfilled, but it still remains a rich source of instruction, wisdom, and comfort. Paul writes about the Old Testament this way:
All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
This includes all the fulfilled prophecies!
Revelation is first addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor. They were to learn the same lessons that Israel should have learned. If they didn’t, they would suffer the same fate — Jesus would come in judgment. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, after briefly rehearsing Israel’s sins, applies to every generation: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:11–12).
The gospels warned Israel of its coming judgment and what needed to be done to escape it (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Revelation is not a warning to Israel. It was a warning to the churches of that generation and by extension to the churches throughout history. Fulfilled prophecy and biblical history, in general, are always applicable. For the application to be made, we must get the timing and original circumstances right. The time texts are the first step. Once we are bound by the timing, it becomes easier to identify the major players and themes. It’s the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the history of Israel that can be applied to every area of life and all time. What happened to Israel and the warnings that were given to the churches in the first century serve every generation. If God was willing to judge Israel and the churches of that time, the same is true for any time.
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J. Kovacs and C. R. Rowland, Revelation: Apocalypse of Jesus Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 9