24 May 2011

End Times

Well, I’ve had my bit of fun. I suppose it’s time for me to be a little more serious and explain why exactly Harold Camping was wrong, and why he is still, by the way, wrong. There is no secret rapture of the Church, there is no coming Great Tribulation, and there is no reason to believe that the prince in Daniel 9, antichrist in John’s epistles, and the beasts in Revelation refer to the same person; nor is there reason to believe that such a person looms in the future of prophecy.

Obviously I can’t make this exhaustive case in a blog post, but I will share some of the thoughts and ideas that my students and I have discussed in our classes while reading books like The Wars of the Jews by Josephus. I will be building a case for the sort of understanding of various scripture passages that would have occurred to first century believers, those to whom the Bible was actually written.

The Context of the Bible

I suppose the place to start is to point out that the Bible wasn’t written to us. The apostle Paul did not have me in mind while writing any of his letters, Luke the physician was not writing his gospel account for my benefit, and Peter and John did not anticipate that I would still be reading their epistles two thousand years later. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these are God’s words, and by God’s providence they have been preserved through the Church for believers today and are profitable and true. However, we have to understand these writings in their historical context in order to then determine how they will be profitable for Christians today. Therefore, when Jesus says things like, “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Mark 13:30), his listeners would have rightly understood that he was talking to them. They would not have thought, “Oh yes, he’s simply saying this so that John Mark can later write it down and Christians in the 21st century can read it and understand that the generation he is referring to is the generation that witnessed the rebirth of the nation of Israel in 1948.” No, Jesus was talking to His listeners and not to us, and so the passage should be understood. Likewise in Revelation 13:18, when John writes, “This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666,” the wise men in the churches of the time would not have said, “Aha, I’ve calculated the number, and figured out the identity of this beast. But…who exactly is Barack Hussein Obama?”

That being said, the passage most often used to predict Tribulation, Rapture, and otherwise End Times events is the Olivet discourse found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. As I previously stated, I don’t have time to go through this passage thoroughly, but I will hit on a few points. The key thing to understand in this passage is that the disciples have asked about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple which Jesus prophesied (Matt. 24:1-2). The disciples, influenced by the popular Zealot party naturally conflate the destruction of the Temple with the end of the age/world due to the belief that God could not let His Temple be destroyed (see the statement by rebel leader John of Gischala in Wars of the Jews Book 6 Chapter 2). Indeed it was the end of an age, though not the end of the space-time continuum as we know it. And all the prophecies made by Jesus in Matthew 24 took place in the time frame He set for them, “this generation.”

The early Church understood this. Jesus told his followers, “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.” (Matt. 24:15-21) When the Roman army besieged Jerusalem beginning in A.D. 68, Christians in the city saw that this prophecy was being fulfilled. This was especially true as the Zealot leaders took over the Temple and made it their headquarters to wage war against rival factions. When Vespasian was forced to return to Rome to fight for the throne, Christians fled the city just as Jesus had commanded, and the city was pretty much emptied of Christians by the time Titus came to resume the siege. Third century church historian Eusebius tells of this destruction and quotes this passage in Matthew 24, showing how the Christians recognized “the infallible prediction of our Savior regarding these very things…” (I encourage you to take the time to read The Church History Book 3, Chapters 5-8 to see this for yourself.)

Sun, Moon, and Stars

“But wait!” you say. “Jesus says that ‘Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’’ (Matt. 24:29). I can look outside for myself and see that the sun is still shining, so this obviously hasn’t happened.”

To answer this, we need to tune in to the context. Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 13, so let’s turn to Isaiah and see what it has to say.

In Isaiah 13:9-16, we see the stars not giving their light, the sun and moon darkened and the earth shaken from its place. Surely this is an end-times prophecy as well, right? Well, if we continue on to read Isaiah 13:17-19, we get a different picture. “See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold. Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants, nor will they look with compassion on children. Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.” God says that all these prophesied things refer to the conquest of Babylon by the Medes. In fact the text explicitly states this in Isaiah 13:1, “A prophecy against Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.” Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus the Mede in 539 B.C. (You can read about it in Herodotus I:188-191), and yet the sun still shines.

A similar passage occurs in Ezekiel 32. “When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over your land, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

This is not an “end-times” passage either. As we see, “In the twelfth year, in the twelfth month on the first day, the word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, take up a lament concerning Pharaoh king of Egypt’…‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘The sword of the king of Babylon will come against you. I will cause your hordes to fall by the swords of mighty men— the most ruthless of all nations. They will shatter the pride of Egypt, and all her hordes will be overthrown” (Ezekiel 32:1, 11-12). The Egyptian army was utterly destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 604 B.C. and in 568 B.C. Babylon invaded Egypt itself.

From these two passages we see that the language of the sun, moon, and stars being darkened/turned to blood are applied to great political upheavals when cities and nations are overthrown by conquerors.

You might say that this is just speculation. “How do you know that your interpretation is right and the interpretation that these are end-times passages is wrong?” The answer is that we don’t need to speculate on whether this sort of “decreation language” can be applied to the conquest of nations because the Bible tells us up front that this is how we are to understand the passage. It is not speculative to say, “The Bible explicitly says this passage is about the Persians conquering Babylon right there in Isaiah 13:1.” It is insanely speculative to say that the fact that the kings of the earth avoid Babylon when they see her smoke rising to heaven (Rev. 18:9-10) shows that the city has been destroyed by an atomic bomb. (I actually heard this on the radio last week!)

So, to apply what we’ve learned, we see the darkening of Sun, Moon, and stars being applied to the defeat of Babylon and Egypt in the Old Testament. We should expect a similar application in the New Testament: For example:

Isaiah 13 (Conquest of Babylon by the Medo-Persians in 539 B.C.)
Ezekiel 32 (Conquest of Egypt by Babylon in 568 B.C.)
Matthew 24 (Conquest of Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70)

The Coming of the Son of Man

“But wait!” you say again. “Jesus says, ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’ (Matt. 24:30) Jesus clearly hasn’t come again, and therefore this has not been fulfilled.”

Once again, let’s look at context. In this verse, Jesus is quoting Daniel 7:13-14. Read this passage in Daniel:

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

Where is the Son of Man coming in this passage? In other words, what is the direction of His coming? “…one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days…” The Son of Man here is not coming to earth from heaven, but is coming to heaven from earth. This “coming” is Jesus’ return to the Father to be invested with great power and dominion. It is interesting that the Old Testament verse most often quoted by New Testament authors is Psalm 110:1, “The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” This is always presented as a present reality in the New Testament. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, he has all power in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and his enemies are even now being made His footstool. The sign of the Son of Man is the sign that Christ has “come” to the Father and has received His dominion. This sign is evidenced by the destruction of the Temple and the judgment of those who rejected and crucified Christ.

Left Behind

“But wait!” you say one last time. “Matthew 24:36-41 is a passage that clearly shows the Rapture of the Church. Two people are working together in a field. One is taken, and one is left behind. If this doesn’t obviously teach that in the end times all the Christians will disappear into thin air leaving their clothing behind, then I don’t know what does!”

Well, yet again, I believe that this passage is referring to the death of many people in the destruction of Jerusalem. Some are taken out by the sword and some are left. However, you don’t have to take my word for that. Let’s look at the analogy being set up in this passage.

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:37). All right, so there’s a comparison going on here. This “coming” of the Son of Man will be like in the days of Noah.

“For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:28-39). In the days of Noah, who was taken away? We are told explicity that the flood came and “took” away those who knew nothing about what would come. Noah and his family were “left behind.” We’re told that the coming of the Son of Man will be the same! So who will be taken and who will be left at the coming of the Son of Man? As in Noah’s day, the wicked were taken away by the flood, so at the coming of the Son of Man the wicked will be taken away by some sort of judgment. It is the righteous, the ones who see it coming and prepare, who are left behind. In the destruction of Jerusalem, the Christians who had Jesus’ prophecy fled the city and were left behind when the Romans came, taking away those in the city and killing and enslaving the population of Jerusalem. There is no indication in this passage that “believers” are taken and “unbelievers” are left behind. In fact the very logic of the analogy dictates the opposite.

The Future

So what is left for the future if all of this Harold Campingesque nonsense is not going to happen? I think we see the answer in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. Paul tells the people that the day is coming for the bodily Resurrection at the end of time. At the second Coming of Christ, the dead will be raised to new life. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Firstly, If Jesus is intending to come secretly and poof away His Church without anyone seeing Him, He really shouldn’t be blowing a trumpet and making such a ruckus. This is clearly not a secret event, but an event that all people on earth will witness.

Secondly, the description here is very reminiscent of a Roman Triumph. After a great battle or war was won, the victorious general would sometimes be granted a triumph, meaning that he would ride his war chariot or war horse into the city of Rome at the head of a parade, leading his conquered enemies behind him, and joined by all those who fought at his side. The people of the city would run out to greet him and together they would all jubilantly parade into the city to witness the execution of the captives. A great first hand description of a triumph can be found in Wars of the Jews Book 7 chapter 5 (or 7:122-157 for the traditional numbering).

It is important to note that a triumph is not the beginning, but the end of battle. Jesus is not returning to begin the war on sin and to start taking over the world. Jesus is returning after He has completed His conquest of the world, after His enemies are made His footstool (Psalm 110:1), after He has broken the nations with a rod of iron (Psalm 2:9), and after the nations have been made His disciples (Matt. 28:19). Creation will be set free from its bondage to sin into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (Rom. 8:21), and we will dwell forever with the Lord.

So there’s the future of the Church. We are spreading Christ’s kingdom to all parts of the earth, expecting victory in the Great Commission through Christ’s authority and the power of the Spirit, and expecting the triumphant return of Christ when all nations have come to acknowledge and serve him as their true king. This is, incidentally, why we shouldn’t expect October 21, 2011 to be the end of the world.

2 comments:

Mom said...

Very interesting,Rick. Might give a few people something to ponder.

Erica said...

You're back! I guess you just couldn't stand not to finish Mossflower.