Saturday, November 03, 2007
So, I have been paying out on the eschatology of others, but have not been prepared to play my cards on the table.
Let me map it out a bit for you. The first important text that we must read as Christians when forming an eschatology is Matthew 24. Jesus had spent his ministry turning the Jewish world view on its head, ushering in a radical new "upside down kingdom." The disciples didn't always get it. So in Matthew chapter 24 they had just been in the temple and the disciples had been marvelling over the temple. Jesus had to tell them all over again, "Haven't I been trying to tell you guys, that its not all about buildings and locations? The father wants worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and truth. Believe me when I tell you that this temple is going to be totally destroyed anyway, not one stone will be left standing on another."
Now when the disciples heard Jesus say that the temple would be destroyed, you have to remember their Jewish world view. They would have seen this as the end of the world, and the time for the messiah to rise up and defeat the enemy. Perhaps they were already beginning to accept that Jesus was not going to play that role, the first time round, but surely he would if the temple was destroyed? The temple was everything wasn't it? Not to Jesus.
Jesus warned them about the destruction of the temple because he knew it would be a big deal to them. But he also had some clauses to give them. "When you hear of wars everywhere, do not be alarmed. When you hear of earthquakes everywhere, do not be alarmed." Some how today we get so caught up in the physical world, that we can not see the forest for the trees. I constantly hear Christians saying that wars and earthquakes are evidence of the end times. They are not! Jesus even told us to not read those events that way. Besides wars and earthquakes have been part of human suffering from time immemorial. I don't see how we can count them as signs of the end times, they are simply part of the fallen world we live in.
Jesus did give a sign that would signify the end. "This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then (only then) the end will come." Firstly we need to take some responsibility for this. Many believers just sit around and think, "hurry up Jesus, I wanna go home," but don't help out with the chores so we can go home. If the end is ever going to come then the gospel must first be preached to all nations. At last count there are still 6000 ethnic nations who do not have the gospel.
So, it is my premise that people take the Bible and try to shoe horn in their own interpretation. People feel the end must be close, so they pick up the Bible, find texts that are surely referring to the end of the world, and then reinterpret it to their own ends. True, not all of Matthew 24 is referring to AD 70 and the destruction of the temple, but a good portion of it is. Jesus was trying to teach the disciples how to discern the difference, so that when AD 70 rolled around they would know that the end had not actually come, and they would remember to preach the gospel to all nations.
Every time some new terrorist attack happens, or when WW1 and WW2 happened (people thought they were surely the end of the world- many eschatological theories were put forward to argue this); or when there was great conflict in the Cold War, we have to resist the temptation of thinking the end is near. We have to put our hands back to the plough, get back to work and continue to preach the gospel to the nations.
Here is another premise: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (St Paul writing to his beloved church in Ephesus from prison in Rome.) Paul could easily have been tempted to have a human enemy, but he was smarter than that. He knew his real enemy was the devil and his demons. We are in a spiritual war and we should not forget that. It is so easy to be tempted into having a human enemy; Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union during the Cold War (and some are convinced that Russia is still a baddy because of this Cold War theology) and now the Muslim world. But we are told to realise that we are not to seek a human enemy, our war is not against flesh and blood.
Now doubting we are in a great spiritual war. We fight with prayer and the enemy lashes back the only way he knows how, by inflicting violence on people, and deceiving people into a physical battle. The gospel is making great inroads into the Muslim world. I routinely hear stories of Muslim people having visions of Jesus and then following him. An exciting one came a couple years back. All of the men in an Afghan village had a vision of Jesus. Shortly after that there was a screening of the Jesus film in their village, then the whole village believed. These events can not continue with out a major shift in the future. Christians in Afghanistan still are extremely careful about revealing their faith to others. I have heard stories of husbands and wives turning up at the same secret meeting and realising they are both Christians. There are ants eating away at the inside of the mountain of Islam and one day it will collapse. Today there is still a strict anti Christian facade, but once they are in the majority, then the regimes will begin to fall.
The devil knows this is happening. It has already been happening long before September 11. But I think the terrorist jihad is a rallying of attacks that are designed to draw us into a physical battle. Then some how we can believe that it is right to have a human enemy, and that this will surely lead to the Armageddon that we are all expecting. I beg to differ.
We are exhorted to not fight physical battles in scripture. We are taught how real the spiritual battle is. But in the west, we are often blind to spiritual things and we fail to understand the spiritual battle for what it really is. What if Armageddon is not a physical battle field? What if it is a spiritual battle field? The angels and demons are already fighting a great battle. I contend that we could already be in the middle of the great Armageddon of scripture, and that we are missing it. We should be taking up spiritual arms in prayer and not thinking about human enemy political states. This is a call to battle and you are needed.
Let me outline a little further how I interpret the book of revelation. Revelation is a book that has so often been misinterpreted by people seeking to find theories about the end of the world. Jesus came to earth as heaven's representative. He was God in the flesh. Jesus bridged the gap between heaven and earth, from God to man. When John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ it was an opening of heaven for human eyes. From man to God. It was an "opening" of heaven. In Russian the word for the book is actually "opening". But we seem to have lost that meaning in English, even though it is what the word means. Often people will say "I had a revelation." But this is not what the book of revelation is about, it is about a glimpse into heaven.
So if the Book of Revelation is set in Heaven, then it would follow that things would seem a little strange and hard to understand at first. The seven lampstands in the early part of Revelation that refer to the seven churches of Asia Minor, is how the churches were viewed in heaven. Chapters four and five describe God's throne in heaven and the worship of God before his throne. This book is not really about earth as such. The opening of the seals are in heaven. The seven trumpets are blown by angels in heaven. Yes they are looking down on the earth and earth is the subject of great interest, but all of this is from a heavenly perspective, with eyes firmly rooted in the spiritual realm.
Chapter 12 refers to more events happening in the spiritual realm. It refers to the devil falling from heaven (in this context he is referred to as a dragon) and taking a third of the angels with him, "and there was war in heaven." The second half of the chapter is actually referring to the birth of Jesus, in the spiritual realm. This was how the birth of Jesus was viewed from heaven, the dragon tried to kill Jesus, which refers to the massacre brought on by Herod, and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Revelation is a book set in the spiritual realm.
The events following this are also set in the spiritual realm. But it is important to realise that there is no strict time line in Revelation. Chapter 12 referred to an event from before the creation of the world, and then an event set at the axis point of human history. But there is a great war that started before the world and is continuing today. The early church were also a part of this great war. Revelation was first of all written to the early church, so of course it would have had immediate reference for them. So the persecutions of chapters 13-18 can specifically be seen as referring to the first century Christians who faced terrible persecutions under Nero and Domitian. It is stupid to argue that it does not refer to these events. Of course people can argue that prophecies can be multi layered, and they can be, but we need to remember that the content of chapters 13-18 is primarily referring to the early church. There is a lot that we can learn however, about how we should respond to persecution, based upon the encouragement in these chapters. For one who endures persecution and "overcomes by the blood of the lamb" the glorious paradise of heaven awaits. This is our encouragement.
Chapters 19-22 are referring to events at the end of time. The same applies to Matthew 24:29 onwards. But Jesus promised these events would not occur until the gospel has been preached to all nations. So we are too early at this point in history and we have a lot of work ahead of us.
I think we are in a great spiritual war right now, possibly even in the midst of the great Armageddon, a war for peoples souls. But we serve a victorious King, and we will win the war on Jesus' side. I have great hope that multitudes will come to Christ in the coming generations. The body of Christ is growing on this planet. Every time a demon is defeated and cast into hell, that is his end. That is why demons fight so hard for their spiritual strongholds, they don't want to face their end, and through prayer, when they are defeated, they do. [Where am I getting these ideas from? Jesus spent much of his ministry casting out demons, notably when he cast out the legion, they begged him to no be sent to the abyss. It was Jesus prerogative to let them go into the pigs. But if Jesus did not send them to the pigs, he would have sent them to the Abyss- hell.]
I would far prefer to have hope that the nations will come to Christ and in numbers so great one day that the believers will be the majority in this earth. I wonder what would be so bad if this were true?
This was actually the position of the church in the 1800s as the gospel spread around the world and people responded. But it was world war 1 that shattered these hopes. World war 2 followed shortly after and people began to think of human enemies and forget about the nations. Then the Cold war followed after world war 2. By this stage people were finding it a bit too hard and wishing Jesus would just come back and end it all. There was a time in the 60s during the Cuban Missile Crisis when people really believed the world was going to come to an end. It was an easy mistake to come up with a human enemy. This is when it became fashionable to have Russia as the enemy. It made good James Bond movies, and it sold plenty of cheap Christian paperbacks too. But it was giving into the temptation of having a human enemy; forgetting about the real enemy and forgetting that Jesus told us to preach the gospel to all the nations.
There are some people today convinced that Russia is going to close again. I remember people saying it in the early 90s. People had put so much of their stock in an eschatology that had Russia as the enemy, that for their belief system to work, they could not live with a Russia what was not the enemy. People prophesied and told me that it would be closed within 10 years, i.e 2001. Every time Russia makes new laws these same people say it all over again, "Russia is closing." This is just nonsense. In the 90s Russia was very open, because they needed to economically rebuild and decided to allow help from the rest of the world. Business visas were given freely to reach this goal. In recent years Russia has been booming and the government has decided that they no longer need so much outside help. This does not mean that people can no longer get visas to come to Russia. It just means that the application process is much more similar to another western nation. People can not just get business visa after business visa to come and live in a western country. They need to either get a work visa or residence permit. Russia has decided to fall into line with this pattern. This is not an indication of Russia closing, rather and indication of Russia stabilising. So the Cold War eschatologists are gradually having to give their theories up.
If the Cold War eschatology is wrong, then perhaps a more modern version is needed (tongue in cheek). Enter Islam and Arabs as the new enemy. James Bond movies just weren't working so well with Russia as an enemy any more. The Arabs seemed more terrifying. Today Arabs make better enemies at the movies (following September 11) and they seem to make better enemies in cheap Christian paper backs as well. This is the same old lie rehashed again. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
The gospel must first be preached to all nations and then the end will come. (Jesus.) The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk.)
What a glorious end it will be. Vastly different from the eschatology of cheap Christian paperbacks.