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Eschatology


The End Times continue to fascinate Christians. Since the beginning of the Church, the faithful have awaited the return of the Savior. However, there are many different understandings of how this will come to pass. How can a Christian discern between so many different viewpoints? Join us as we discuss a few of these competing theories and talk about how one should understand eschatology.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Episode: 39

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Fourth Sunday after Trinity: Romans 8:18-23

Because sin, working through the Law though not being a part of it, brings death, the Christian engages in an internal, personal war.  The holy and righteous Law of God is his delight, but sin works in his members against it.  To be in Christ is to suffer with Him, because being in Christ means being a new creation, wholly distinct from the old.  How, then, does God call His creation to live in Him?

Paul emphasizes in the reading just before the pericope for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity that Christians live according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh.  Christians follow after the Spirit of God as sons, not as slaves of the flesh.  Sin is not a necessity, in that sense, for the Christian.  He will sin, of course, because of his great weakness, and sin remains ever at the door, desiring entrance.  But he is no longer ruled by sin, but by Christ.  Being in Christ means suffering with him in order to be glorified with Him, for the Christian is being remade in His image.

This suffering is not meaningless, nor is it worthy of serious concern.  It is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  Being glorified with Christ will show these present sufferings for what they really are:  fleeting and temporary, meant for building us up and not for our destruction.  “Weeping may tarry for the night” (Psalm 30:5), and a dark night that might be, wherein “I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6)!  Even the most intense trouble now will give way to joy, but not in a trivial way.  Christ’s own suffering was far from trivial.  Who has suffered like He suffered on our behalf?  Yet His suffering came to an end and the Father has bestowed on Him a glory far exceeding any earthly glory, “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

On that day will come “the revealing of the sons of God,” the moment in which our glory in Christ will no longer be hidden.  “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).  The sheep will be distinguished from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).  It will be the day of the fullness of our redemption, the resurrection from the dead, the hope toward which we press.  Salvation is both now and yet to come, because while our assurance comes in this moment, the fullness of our redemption will come when Christ finally brings all things under His feet.  Sin will be no more in that day, and all of the former things will pass away, never to return again.

Even creation awaits this revelation.  It too is in bondage, because Adam’s sin frustrated its original purposes.  Adam is, after all, the head not only of the human race, but of all creation.  He holds dominion over it, given to him by the Lord (Genesis 1:28).  His sin causes the earth to fail in bringing forth the fullness of its strength (Genesis 3:17-19).  Even more to the point, not only does creation undergo the judgment of the Flood because of man’s sin (Genesis 6:7), it also falls under the covenant made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-11).  Therefore, man’s sin means the creation suffers with him.  It longs to be set free from this slavery and return to its original state, just like the restoration of man in Christ.

If the world longs to see the great day of redemption, how much more do we as Christians?  We must wait, of course, and such patience is a fruit of the Spirit.  Yet, as Paul goes on to say, “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).  Even if we must suffer, we suffer with Christ.  Even if we must wait for the fullness of our salvation, we wait with Christ.  Even if we must die, we die with Christ.  Our war with sin is not fruitless or pointless, but part of separating us from the body of death and making us heirs of eternal life.

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple!  The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)!  Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down.  “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).  Jesus’ words struck a nerve.  When will these things happen?

Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once.  The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands.  This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8).  This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.

But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment.  Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed.  But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27).  They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered.  It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared.  So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved.  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)?  (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29).  There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run.  God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.

The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness.  A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded.  But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance.  The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat.  It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.

Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history.  It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end.  But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs.  The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).  Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared.  There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead.  The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.

Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy.  For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful.  They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36).  But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution.  “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).  Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.

As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).  The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this.  But they also, I think, clarify what He means.  Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.”  Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it.  In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32).  Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness.  But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.

Last Sunday of the Church Year: Isaiah 65:17-25

What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come?  In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city.  This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel.  However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.

More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness.  The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state.  Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28.  Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully.  This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose.  Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God.  Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah:  fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.

Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations.  Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.

This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.  The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19).  All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more.  There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.

When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light.  Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life.  Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more.  Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young!  But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.

They will build and inhabit their houses.  They will plant and enjoy their vineyards.  Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever.  The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26).  His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Is this language only poetic?  I do not think so.  On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home.  The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong.  Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way.  One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!

On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory.  No longer shall there be a curse.  No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people.  No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise.  The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty.  Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin.  Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself.  It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life.  But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.