Category Archives: Eschatology

The Last Days of Israel

Jerusalem Israel

Some of my favorite Bible teachers on radio have been dispensationalists who believe in a pretribulation rapture of the church. They rarely bring up the subject. In fact, you could listen for years without hearing a sermon on the rapture. The same is true of the church I currently attend. When they say one’s stance on the rapture shouldn’t divide Christians, they mean it. They are more interested in building up the body of Christ and making disciples.

Unfortunately, there are other radio programs whose hosts and guests accuse anyone opposed to their teaching of a pretribulation rapture of anti-semitism and replacement theology. They claim that one’s stance on the rapture doesn’t affect salvation, but then repeatedly refer to themselves as the remnant and accuse those who don’t agree with them or who don’t constantly teach about eschatology of being false teachers. It seems the greatest sin one can commit, according to these teachers, is to neglect Bible prophecy and Israel.

I don’t agree with their assessment. It is possible to believe the people of Israel play an important role in Bible prophecy without believing in a secret rapture that removes the Church from the earth before the start of the tribulation. I also believe God’s priority for Christians is to become more Christlike, not self-proclaimed experts in eschatology.

A Quick Review

In an earlier post I made the claim that the Church is not a parenthesis in God’s redemptive plan, inserted into history because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah. Thus the Church and Israel do not operate as distinct entities and the rapture is not required to separate them into their respective dispensations. Also, the Church and Israel do not have separate eternal destinies, one in heaven and one on the new earth.

In another post, I presented Bible verses indicating that Israel and the Church have the same savior, redeemer and husband. This suggests a continuity and oneness between Israel and the Church far more than it suggests two distinct groups of people.

Furthermore, both the Church and Israel are called God’s chosen people and a holy nation. They have the same shepherd and same king. Jesus declares they shall be one flock. It makes no sense for them to have different eternal homes.

Finally, a closer look at the “left behind” passage in Matthew 24:37-41 reveals that the rapture is not in view here because it is unbelievers who are “taken” in judgment and it is believers who are left behind to live with Christ in the Millennium.

Israel’s Status

So, if there is no rapture and no Jewish age to be completed in the future, what role do the Jews as a distinct people have in the eschatological events prophesied in Revelation?

Much of the debate* concerning Israel’s role in future events centers on how much of the prophecy in the Olivet Discourse found in Matthew 24 and 25 has already been fulfilled.

Most all Christians agree that the context of the Olivet Discourse (especially Matthew 23:37-39) is Israel’s rejection of their Messiah. Furthermore, they agree that the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. was God’s judgment on Israel for their rejection of Jesus.

But was it a permanent setting aside? Has the Church, as some believe, replaced ethnic Israel?

Grafted Back In

Matthew 23:37-39 and other passages seem to refute such a notion.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:37-39).

Matthew 23:37 describes the anguish Israel’s rejection caused her Messiah. Israel’s house is left desolate (v 38) when Jesus leaves the temple (24:1).1 But they will see him again (v 39). During his triumphal entry (Matthew 21), they welcomed Jesus as King hoping to be released from Roman rule but rejected him as Savior from their sins. After the crucifixion the Jews, as a people, will not see him again until they repent, using once more the words from Psalm 118 which portrays the triumph of the 2nd Advent — Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord — this time in understanding and faith.

Not only does this passage refute the extreme preterism idea that Jesus returned in 70 A.D. (because the Jews did not repent); it also indicates that Israel has a very important role to play in the future. Jesus will not return until Israel as a nation (but with exceptions) repents.2

The above may seem like thin evidence, but Zechariah 12:10 also refutes the idea that Israel was permanently replaced in God’s redemptive plan:

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (NASB)

Though one fulfillment of this verse occurred at the cross (John 19:37), when examined along with Romans 11:11-26, it becomes clearer that in the future, Israel mourns its sin and is grafted back in to the root because they no longer persist in unbelief and are saved.3

Jesus wept over the city that rejected him (Luke 19:41) knowing that unless they did, he would never be crucified. He wept knowing that unless they rejected him, the fountain that would cleanse from sin all who believe in him (Zechariah 13:1, Hebrews 9:22) would never be opened in his side. He wept knowing  his Spirit of grace would one day be poured out on his people so they would recognize him, mourn and repent. Jesus wept, perhaps longing for the time when he would return (Matthew 23:39) to make Jerusalem’s desolation a distant memory and to dwell in their midst (Zechariah 2:11).

Jesus’ love for his people pours out of these verses like a flood. Should we not see as Jesus did? Ethnic Israel’s last days do not end in the despair of the destruction of Jerusalem as some preterists claim. Israel’s last days end in the joy of knowing her Messiah. Grafted back into the root, Jesus makes them one flock with all the elect to live together forever with him.

The apostle Paul concluded that God has not rejected his people forever (Romans 11:1) nor are they beyond recovery (v11) though they have experienced a partial hardening (v25). Christians need not believe in a pretribulation rapture that abandons the Jewish people to the horrors of the tribulation to affirm that God still has plans and promises for ethnic Israel.

The fact that the modern nation of Israel exists, populated with Jews gathered from around the world is potentially very significant to prophecy fulfillment. Is it time for Israel to be grafted back into the root? Is the world stage being set for their repentance and the return of Jesus?

 

Notes:
  1. Preterists argue this desolation denotes the end of the old covenant. See further reading below.
  2. This, of course, could refer to Israel used in the sense of all saved people. However, since verse 25 refers to physical Israel and not spiritual Israel and since it would not be a “mystery” that all the elect, whether Jew or Gentile, will be saved, it is more likely that Paul sees a “restoration of the Jews in the sense in which they had been rejected, that is, the nation generally. Paul then is affirming that the nation of Israel as a whole will ultimately have its place in God’s salvation.” (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 421.)
  3. This differs from the mourning of Revelation 1:7 when, at the 2nd Advent, every eye will see him and unbelievers, without repentance, mourn as they face judgment. However, in Matthew 24:30 the mourning of the tribes of the earth (Israel) upon Christ’s return (KJV, NASB and ESV) is most likely accompanied by repentance.
*Further Reading – Interpretive Methods for the Book of Revelation

Note — The following discussion uses the term Israel to refer to the Jewish people as an ethnic group, not to the redeemed people of God comprised of both Jew and Gentile.

A person’s view of Israel’s role in future world events largely depends on the method he or his Bible teacher uses to interpret the Book of Revelation.

For example, preterists interpret the book of Revelation as a message of hope to persecuted believers of the late first century and early second century. Preterism comes in three forms – mild, moderate (or partial) and extreme (or full). Mild preterism sees the prophecies in the book of Revelation fulfilled in 70 A.D. in the downfall of Israel as a nation and in 313 A.D. when pagan Rome met its demise with the Edict of Milan. Extreme preterism believes the 2nd Coming occurred in 70 A.D. along with the spiritual resurrection of the saints. There is no future bodily resurrection of believers or unbelievers. The mild and extreme forms of preterism are untenable in my estimation.

The moderate preterist understanding of both the Tribulation and the bulk of Bible prophecy centers on political events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. In this view the kingdom has not been postponed as dispensationalism teaches, but is here now and is spiritual in nature. Thus there is no need for national Israel to have a future dispensation in which to fulfill prophecy. However, for the moderate preterist the Second Coming, Resurrection and Judgment remain in the future.

Idealists view Revelation as a dramatic portrayal of the battle between good and evil and its application to humanity’s struggles. It does not serve as a predictive text.

Those who hold a millennialist view mostly adhere to either a historicist or futurist interpretation of Revelation. Historicists believe fulfillment of Revelation’s prophecies can be found in the past, present and future. Futurists believe the events of Revelation await a future fulfillment.

 

References:

  1. Toussaint, Stanley D., “A Critique of the Preterist View of the Olivet Discourse.” Bibliotheca Sacra161, no. 644 (2004). 469-490.
  2. Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 350-351.
  3. John Piper, “There Shall Be a Fountain Opened
  4. Richard D. Phillips, Zechariah, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
  5. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version

 

The Rapture: Who Really Gets Left Behind?

Heavenly Image Rapture Left Behind

Does the Bible predict a future “Rapture” of the Church when believers are suddenly snatched off the earth to meet Jesus in the air, and unbelievers are left behind to deal with airplanes without pilots, driverless cars and other assorted chaos? Is Jesus 2nd Coming a two-stage event in which he comes first for his Church, delivering them from the horrors of the Great Tribulation, and later to judge the world and usher in the Millennium?

The imagery of a world thrust into chaos by a “secret” rapture of Christians comes from imagining what surely must follow the sudden removal of millions of people from planet earth. This imagery comes mainly from Matthew 24:40-41, describing what will happen when Jesus returns:

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

A whole theology has been built around not being “left behind” to go through the worst period of human history. This “truth”, in the minds of proponents of this view, increases both the urgency with which Christians evangelize and the motivation for unbelievers to place their faith in Christ.

Of course, proponents of a pre-tribulation or post-tribulation “Rapture” don’t base their beliefs solely on Matthew 24:40-41. However, it is important to address this passage since it plays such a central role in the widespread and popular theology expounded from pulpits and portrayed in print and film.

Who Really Gets Taken?

In Matthew 24:37-39, Jesus compares the events surrounding his return with the events surrounding Noah entering the ark:

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 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.

We know that Noah, the one who escaped judgment, knew God was going to judge the whole earth (Genesis 6:13-14). The people who did not know the flood was coming were the ones who were taken in judgment while Noah was left on the earth to live. So, when Jesus says, “That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man,” should we not conclude that those who know that Jesus will bring judgment to the earth (i.e. believers) will be the people who are left on the earth (like Noah) and that those who don’t know (unbelievers) will be taken in judgment?

Thus, the man taken from the field and the woman taken from the mill will be taken in judgment, not to safety. This is consistent only with a post-tribulation rapture in which unbelievers are taken in judgment and believers are left to live with Christ in the Millennium.

Contrary to popular theology, it is better to be “left behind.”

 

Will the Church Go Through the Great Tribulation?

sunset heaven tribulation

If you attend an evangelical church, especially a Baptist, Pentecostal or non-denominational church, you might be surprised to know how many Christians do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or in a “great tribulation” lasting seven years or that Revelation chapter 20 speaks of a literal thousand-year period (millennium) when Christ rules on earth.

According to LifeWay Research, only one-third of American Protestant pastors believe in a pre-tribulation rapture and only half believe in a future, literal thousand-year reign of Christ.1

Who Believes What

The prevailing interpretations of Revelation chapter 20 can generally be categorized into three options – premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism.

Premillennialists believe:

  • Christ will return physically to reign on earth for a thousand years.
  • Jesus’ return will result in a sharp contrast between the worst period of history (the great tribulation) and the best period of history (the thousand-year reign of Christ).
  • Christ’s second coming will result in Satan being bound for one thousand years.
  • Near the end of the millennium Satan will be released and launch a final rebellion that Christ will squash and Satan and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire.
  • There will be two physical resurrections, one for believers and one for unbelievers, separated by the thousand years of the millennium.
  • The arrival of new heavens and the new earth follow the final judgment.

Amillennialists believe:

  • The thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 are symbolic rather than literal and represents the entire church age. Persecution increases toward the end, prior to Christ’s return, but there is no distinct seven-year period of tribulation.
  • There will be no earthly, personal reign of Christ (no millennium). Christ’s rule is in the hearts and minds of Christians who experience trials and tribulations throughout the church age.
  • The two resurrections of Revelation 20 are not separated by a thousand years and are not both physical resurrections as in premillennialism.
  • Final judgment immediately follows Christ’s return, whereupon both the righteous and the wicked will enter into their respective final states.

Postmillennialists believe:

  • The thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 are symbolic rather than literal and represents the entire church age. Persecution increases toward the end, prior to Christ’s return, but there is no distinct seven-year period of tribulation.
  • The kingdom is present now and Christ rules in the hearts of men.
  • Prior to Christ’s return, the world will, over time, get better rather than worse. Evil will be reduced to negligible proportions through conversion of most of the world. When enough people submit to God, a long period of earthly peace of unknown length (millennium) will result.
  • At the end of the millennium a brief period of evil and apostasy arise associated with the Antichrist.Then Christ will return which will immediately be followed by a resurrection that includes all people, the final judgment and assignment of the wicked and righteous to their eternal destiny.

So, it would seem that for a Christian to consider the rapture debate to be of any import, she must first decide whether or not the millennium is a literal thousand-year period and if there is a distinct period of great tribulation to be rescued from.

We should probably not attempt to convince anyone of a particular eschatological position based on who has held it in the past. It is interesting, though, to realize that Christians we may look to for guidance understanding the Scriptures or for inspiration in missionary efforts, have held a position on the end-times we find untenable.

For example, William Carey was a postmillennialist. Jonathan Edwards, who ranks very high on my list of favorite theologians, was a postmillennialist. In the wake of the Great Awakening in America many Christians thought perhaps this amazing spread of the gospel meant the millennium was approaching. But, the optimism of postmillennialism is captive to the times we live in, to world events. Two World Wars, the Great Depression and horrifying genocides in the twentieth century, unsurprisingly diminished enthusiasm for the idea that the world was getting better.

The time we live in influences us greatly. When the Church undergoes persecution, a millennium brought about by a dramatic, sudden intervention of God’s power seems more plausible. Perhaps this is why the early Church (until the time of Augustine) was largely premillennial in its eschatology.

Revelation 20

Proponents of the different millennial views, understandably, believe their view best explains various biblical passages. However, Revelation 20 is the only place in the Bible that mentions a thousand-year period in which Christ reigns and Satan is bound. It is the focal point of the millennial debate.

George Murray (in defense of amillennialism) argues we should interpret an obscure passage in light of more clear statements. He contends that one can read the entire Bible without discovering the doctrine of two resurrections separated by a literal thousand years until he arrives at Revelation 20. Then, by interpreting one sentence literally, he is obliged to retrace his steps and re-interpret all eschatological passages in light of this one sentence.2

Another common argument from amillennialists is that the book of Revelation is structured so that it describes the period between Christ’s first advent and His second advent numerous times but with different emphasis. So, according to this reasoning, Revelation 20 starts a new description that begins with Satan’s defeat at Christ’s 1st Advent (the binding of Satan) and ends with judgment day at Christ’s 2nd Advent (Christ’s reign).3

Denver Seminary professor Craig Blomberg counters this latter argument by addressing the logical flow of thought in Revelation 19 and 20. Amillennialists and postmillennialists break the narrative between the two chapters because in order for the tribulation to refer to the church age, Revelation 20 must begin a new description of the church age starting with events that take place at the 1st Advent. But since the end of chapter 19 reveals the fate of two members of the unholy trinity (the beast and the false prophet), readers expect to hear next about the fate of Satan, the mastermind of the group. This is indeed what happens. Since Revelation 20 reveals Satan’s fate, it makes sense to consider chapters 19 and 20 together, thus placing the events of Revelation 20 at the 2nd Advent rather than the first, supporting the idea of a literal millennium.4


Of course, this by no means settles the matter. Differing methods of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and insights from other passages of Scripture contribute significantly to the differing conclusions reached by students of eschatology.

Pre or Post Tribulation Rapture?

Let’s lay aside for now attempts to resolve the millennial issue because, while it helps us understand what people believe, the purpose of this article is to answer the question – will the Church go through the great tribulation?

We don’t need to choose between amillennialism or postmillennialism to answer the question, because if either are correct, then there is no unique period of tribulation to escape from since the Church experiences tribulation throughout history.5 Also, neither teaches that the Church will escape the intensified tribulation at the end of the age.6,7

But what about premillennialism? Do all premillennialists believe the Church will be raptured before the tribulation? Evangelicals who believe Christ reigns physically on the earth for a thousand years and who believe there will be a future seven-year period called the Great Tribulation, typically subscribe to either historic premillennialism or dispensational premillennialism.

We don’t need to choose between historic premillennialism and post- or a- millennialism to answer our question because historic premillennialism teaches that Christ returns for his Church after the Great Tribulation. Only dispensational premillennialism teaches that Christ returns for his elect before the Great Tribulation (a pre-tribulation “rapture”).Therefore the debate as to whether the Church goes through the tribulation is really an in-house debate among premillennialists and centers around the timing of Christ’s return for his elect.

My next article will examine the pre-tribulation and post- tribulation rapture positions. After investigating the reasoning and assumptions that lead people to reach different conclusions about the timing of Jesus’ return while citing the same Bible verses, I will attempt to answer the question – will the Church go through the Great Tribulation?

Notes:

  1. Smietana, Bob (2016) “Pastors: The End of the World is Complicated” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/04/26/pastors-the-end-of-the-world-is-complicated/
  2. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (1979). Grand Rapids, MI:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p 242
  3. The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989, p 39-40
  4. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version, p 67
  5. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, e version, p 66
  6. The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989, p 22
  7. However, it would appear from current world conditions, that postmillennialists have little reason to worry about the increased season of tribulation at the end as it appears it will be a long time before the the world attains a period of peace comparable to their envisioned millennium.

 

References:

The End Times: A Study On Eschatology and Millennialism, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, September 1989

Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, The Case for Historic Premillennialism, An Alternative to Left Behind Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009

Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology, Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 1977

Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume Three, Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan Publishing House, 1994

People Get Ready

Dark Clouds On the Horizon

This past presidential election cycle awakened fears in the hearts of many Americans that might otherwise have lain dormant had there been a candidate who rose above the lesser of two evils criterion.

Christians across America sense that time is running out. Like a train speeding toward a canyon not knowing its bridge is out, our nation has failed to slow its moral decline or alter its course by taking a different track. On the contrary, we seem to be accelerating as we approach the abyss.

Couple this awareness of our own nation’s condition with the realization that the rest of the world isn’t faring any better, and it’s no wonder that a Barna poll taken in 2013 reported that 41% of all adults in America and 77% of evangelical Christians believe the biblical end times have arrived. Given the events of the past three years – increased terrorism, wars and a refugee crisis – even more people must wonder how close we are to the last days.

While some people, because of the results of Tuesday’s election, feel a measure of relief and hope that our nation’s headlong rush to disaster might be slowed or even reversed because the democratic candidate lost, others don’t. A sober analysis recognizes we are in the same state of moral decay as we were before the election. Even if our nation becomes great again by worldly standards, it will be to no avail if American Christians practice a powerless, ineffective and lukewarm Christianity that depends on political saviors.

We remain on the brink of disaster. And so does the world.

Do We Really Need to Understand Prophecy?

Considering the millions of copies the Left Behind series of books sold, one might conclude there is widespread interest in the study of the end times (eschatology), particularly by those who believe Jesus will return to take the Church to heaven before a seven-year tribulation period begins on earth. Though many denominations do not teach a pre-tribulation rapture, it is likely that more than a few Christians in those denominations adhere to the teaching simply because it is so ubiquitous.  Millions of Christians attend churches that do teach a pre-tribulation rapture. Thus, a significant number of people are anticipating future events to play out in a scenario similar to those found in the book series.

But what if events don’t go according to the script of these books?

In other words, does eschatology matter? If we are indeed close to the return of Jesus, does it matter which millennial view we hold or if we believe in a pre-tribulation rapture?

Evangelical, Bible believing Christians share important, core beliefs about the end times. Christ’s visible, public return to earth, the bodily resurrection of all humanity, and the judgment of the living of the dead resulting in eternal life for some and eternal destruction for the rest are not the beliefs that distinguish those who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture from those who don’t.

Furthermore, Christians can love, trust, serve and obey God without agreeing on the timing of the rapture or  how to interpret Revelation 20.

Yet, I can’t imagine that God doesn’t want us to get his prophetic message right, especially as events unfold. If a prophetic passage is a call to prepare, shouldn’t we know what to prepare for, whether deliverance from or perseverance through tribulation? If prophecy serves as a warning shouldn’t we assume the warning is for us unless proven otherwise? Certainly Jesus didn’t intend his warnings in Matthew 24 to go unheeded. If prophecy is a call to repentance, shouldn’t we know what to repent of?

Finally, since prophecy, like the rest of Scripture, reveals God’s glory we should understand it as best we can.

Crucial Questions

To make sense out of the various views about the end times and particularly the doctrine of the rapture of the church, a number of pertinent questions should be addressed:

  1. Are Israel and the Church distinct and separate peoples of God with different destinies? If this is the case, then a pre-tribulation rapture is a necessity because the church must be removed prior to the 2nd Advent in order for the Jewish age to be completed. (I have already made a case against this idea here, here and here).
  2. Is suffering and persecution normative for the Christian and, if so, is the notion that God would remove his saints from a period of intensified persecution in the tribulation consistent with how he has treated his elect throughout history?
  3. Is the great tribulation limited to a seven-year period just prior to Jesus’ return to earth? To so restrict the time frame of the great tribulation allows for the possibility that the Church can escape it. However, if the tribulation occurs throughout the church age (as believed by amillenialists) or if it encompasses the period from 70 AD until the return of Christ, (as indicated by Matthew 24 and Luke 21) then, by definition, the church cannot escape the worst persecution in history even though it escapes God’s wrath.
  4. Does the Bible teach a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth known as the millennium? This is significant, because various interpretations of the end times hinge on this question.
  5. Is Revelation best interpreted by assuming the book’s major emphasis is on the final victory of God over evil or by assuming its primary function was to address first century persecution of Christians under Rome or does the book mainly teach timeless principles about how God acts in the world? These and other approaches to interpreting the book of Revelation lead to quite different conclusions. Perhaps the best interpretation of Revelation incorporates all of these approaches when applicable.

Because proponents of the pre-tribulation rapture position have done a better job of promoting their view of the end times, it may seem to those who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture that it is overwhelmingly the majority opinion among Christians. They therefore hesitate to entertain the possibility that alternative viewpoints are correct.

This series of blogs challenges the pre-tribulation rapture view. I haven’t engaged in a serious study of prophecy for decades, but now seems like the right time to turn to the pages of prophecy for instruction concerning the Blessed Hope.

Heaven On Earth

Tropical ocean scene heaven on earth
A Pleasant Respite

Nine years ago, I spent much of spring and summer on the island of Saipan with my fiancé, meeting her friends and church-mates, and preparing for our August Wedding. We had a routine, of sorts. Liberty picked me up at seven in the morning and drove us to the beach where we read the Bible. Then we exercised at the gym before she had to get ready for her work as a newspaper reporter. We usually met for lunch. After she got off work, we spent most evenings at church or at a Bible study in a home.

While on this self-funded sabbatical, I had plenty of free time to rest, read and relax while Liberty was at work. I enjoyed reading in the lobby of my hotel, located across a road from the beach. As a cool ocean breeze swept through the open lobby, I periodically paused from reading to gaze at a flame tree and the ocean beyond.

Whenever we temporarily leave behind our busy, stress-filled lives to visit beautiful tropical settings, they seem by comparison a sort of heaven on earth. We even refer to such places as a tropical Paradise. Of course, Christians know that no place on this sin-marred world can compare to the original creation or to the life to come. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” 1

Even so, this island setting, with my usual responsibilities temporarily removed, primed my heart to better appreciate what the Bible proclaims about our eternal home. It was providential, not coincidental, that one of the books I read in that Saipan hotel lobby was Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future.

Heaven On Earth

For me, the phrase “Heaven On Earth” brings to mind feeble attempts to create for ourselves a heaven of our own making that we control and manage. Such a focus easily transforms any hard tasks or sacrifices associated with following Jesus into obstacles to avoid. How different this is from Jesus’ invitation:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

We can find rest for our souls now as we live in a fallen world even though we spend most our time away from the pleasant inns. But, what I found so comforting and restful, what stirred my heart as I read in that hotel lobby was contemplating what the Bible said God was going to do in the future.

I have to confess that, prior to this, I never spent much time studying the subject of heaven. Knowing that God would be there, that there would be no more crying or pain, that “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” 2 was good enough for me.

I also hadn’t given much thought to the significance the Bible places on our bodily resurrection. Nor did I concern myself over what it would be like in the intermediate state before the resurrection. I was content that I would be made clean, rid of sin forever.

I hadn’t considered how relevant the new earth is to my future. My first dispensational Bible instructors taught me that Israel would inhabit the new earth. Everyone else would inhabit heaven.

But, what if our eternal home is on a perfected earth, one restored to its original goodness without any sin? What if our “heaven” really is on earth?

Our Eternal Home

It is commonly taught, based on 2 Peter 3:10, that our earth and the cosmos will be completely annihilated and replaced by a new heaven and a new earth spoken of in Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21. But is this interpretation correct?

After the Fall, God subjected all of creation to futility, not just humanity. Both the cosmos and humanity groan under the curse that resulted because of sin (Romans 8:22-23). But God didn’t subject creation to a futility without remedy; he subjected it in hope. Just as we eagerly await our bodies’ redemption so all of creation eagerly awaits liberation from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). To destroy creation to secure its liberation makes no more sense than to annihilate Christians to deliver them from their body of death! Neither our physical bodies nor the physical universe is discarded; both are redeemed.

The biblical evidence suggests that Christians are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) destined to live in eternity on a new earth (Revelation 21:1). The word “new” in both cases is the Greek word kainos that denotes new in the sense of being qualitatively better than what has existed until now. 3 The writers could have chosen the word neos had they wanted to denote new in the sense of something not previously existent.4,5

2 Peter 3:10 tells us that, at the end of time, all wickedness will be exposed and judged just as it was in the flood (2 Peter 3:6). Unlike the flood, this judgment liberates both the earth and redeemed humanity from the curse.

The Importance of the Resurrection of the Body

Mankind is not fully human without a body. Hoekema notes that if we are not raised into physical bodies, then the Greeks were right – that matter is evil, contrary to God’s declaration that his creation was good.6

”For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Death, the last enemy to be defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26), was the first enemy humanity faced because of the Fall (Genesis 2:17). When our bodies are resurrected, changed from corruptible to incorruptible, from mortal to immortal, then death will have neither victory nor sting (1Corinthians 15:54,55). Created to live on earth, redeemed humanity will do so forever.

A Beautiful Portrait

Look how our future is woven through the pages of Scripture:

  • Abraham (not just his descendants) was given all of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:8), yet he did not own a foot of ground in it (Acts 7:5) Instead he looked forward to a city prepared by God (Hebrews 11:10,16). His future possession and ours is on the new earth. We are strangers and exiles on this present corrupted earth (Hebrews 11:13).
  • Isaiah foretold of a new earth devoid of all sorrow (Isaiah 65:17-19).
  • Genesis 17:8 and Psalm 37:11 promised the meek they would inherit the land of Canaan, but Jesus extended that promise to include the entire earth (Matthew 5:5).
  • Christ’s suffering wiped away our sins and He will return from heaven to dwell with us after God restores all things (Acts 3:18-21).
  • Christ’s blood purchased men from every tribe, tongue, people and nation to become a kingdom of priests who serve God and reign upon the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).
  • God dwells with his washed and perfected redeemed on a perfected and cleansed earth (Revelation 7:14-17; 21:3-4).

There will be a time when our stay at a pleasant inn will not simply be a respite from a fallen world. Creation will have been liberated from the curse. All of it.  Every. Last. Inch.

Best of all, Almighty God and the Lamb who was slain for our redemption will dwell forever with us.

He is coming soon.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

 

 

 

Reference:

Hoekema, Anthony A., The Bible and the Future (1979). Grand Rapids, MI:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Notes:

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (1962). New York, N.Y.: Macmillan Publishing Company, p 115
  2. 1 Corinthians 2:9 NKJV
  3. Colin Brown, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “New” by H. Haarbeck, H.-G. Link, Colin Brown
  4. Colin Brown, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “New” by H. Haarbeck
  5. When translating Isaiah 65:17 from Hebrew to Greek, Jewish scholars used kainos as well. (Colin Brown, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “New” by H. Haarbeck, H.-G. Link, Colin Brown)
  6. Hoekema, Anthony A., The Bible and the Future (1979). Grand Rapids, MI:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p 250

One Shepherd, One King, One Holy Nation

Both Israel and the Church are referred to in Scripture as God’s Bride.  But, there are other names they share.

Both Israel and the Church Are Called God’s Chosen People

Prior to giving Moses the Ten Commandments, God gave these words to Moses and instructed him to deliver this message to the Israelites:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Exodus 19:5-6 (See also Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Psalm 135:4)

God worked on Israel’s behalf; He chose them for himself. Peter applies the description of Israel found in Exodus 19 to the Church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 1 Peter 2:9

Both Israel and the Church Are Called God’s Holy Nation, Priests and a Treasured Possession

Both Israel and the Church are called out of humanity at large to be a treasured possession, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. God certainly could have described Israel and the Church using different terms, but the fact that he did not is significant. This is one reason for the teaching that the Church is a continuation of Israel, a continuation of the ingathering of a people of God in his redemptive plan.

Because of her idolatry, God said to Israel, “you are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea1:9). But Hosea also speaks of a future time of restoration when Israel and Judah are reunited under one ruler (v10). God, through Hosea, promises a future for Israel when they will again be his people:

I will plant her for myself in the land;

I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’

I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;

and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” Hosea 2:23

The New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament a lot, oftentimes, as noted above, applying to the Church verses originally addressed to Israel. I don’t believe these verses teach a Replacement Theology as some have suggested, but they do seem to indicate that God views his redeemed people as a whole.  For example:

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—  even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;

and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”

and, “In the very place where it was said to them,

‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” 

Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,only the remnant will be saved. Romans 9:22-26

Romans 9:24-25 applies Hosea 2:23 to the Gentiles. Not all Israel is saved, only the remnant. Paul is saying that not only is there hope for apostate Israel, who, because of disobedience were placed outside of the people of God, but there is hope for the Gentiles who were heretofore naturally outside the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). God calls to himself a people out of both groups.1

Jesus Is the Good Shepherd

I suppose one could still argue that the use of the same names for the Church and Israel does not disprove there are two groups of chosen people. The Bible, however, seems to go out of its way to say that there is no such distinction. Jesus appears to have settled the question in his declaration that he is the Good Shepherd.

God is the Shepherd of Israel (Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 40:11). It is interesting that Jeremiah, in the context of God gathering the remnant of his flock, speaks of the righteous Branch of David who will rule as King and bring salvation:

“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,” declares the Lord.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.

This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior. Jeremiah 23:3-6

We know this Savior and King from the lineage of David is Jesus (Matthew 1:1; Revelation 17:14; 19:16; 22:16; 1 Timothy 6:15).

Jesus Said Israel and the Church Shall Be One Flock

Jesus claimed to be the good shepherd who will not only gather the remnant of Israel, laying down his life for them, but will also shepherd and die for sheep not of the Jewish pen:

I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father-and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.            John 10:14-16

Not only does God call his people out of both groups – he makes those he has chosen into one entity, one flock. Thus, it makes little sense to say that Israel and the Church are distinct and will spend eternity separated from each other with one group in heaven and the other on the New Earth.

This series of three articles has made the case that there is one people of God who has one Husband and one Shepherd and one King. Israel and the Church are not completely different entities with different eternal destinies. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is a Christian and not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. But those who truly are the elect, the chosen, share a common destiny.

The assumptions we start with when interpreting prophetic Scripture impact the conclusions we reach. If, when reading prophecy, we imagine that every occurrence of the word Israel refers to a national, ethnic entity with a future different from our own, then we are bound to err. But what other assumptions might lead us to conclusions about the future that are inconsistent with the way God deals with his people throughout the Bible? Upcoming articles exploring God’s Redemptive History will address some of these assumptions.

 

Note:

  1. Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (1988). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p 370

Same Savior, Same Husband, Different People of God?

In my post, The Church Is Not a Parenthesis In God’s Redemptive Plan, I challenged the idea that God has a different redemptive plan for Israel and the Christian Church and posed this question – If Israel and the Church are so distinct, why are they often described the same way in the Bible, or called by the same name?

Israel Is Called God’s Bride

The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea describe Israel as a bride whose husband is God. In the book of Jeremiah, God remembers with fondness Israel’s “honeymoon” period of faithfulness:

The word of the Lord came to me:  “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem: I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.” Jeremiah 2:1,2

But Israel was often unfaithful and eventually would incur judgment. However, she has a future because God is a faithful husband. In Isaiah 54, a disobedient, idolatrous Israel, though facing judgment and estrangement, is comforted by the fact that her husband, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord Almighty, will eventually call her back from exile into relationship:

For your Maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name –
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.
The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.
“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. Isaiah 54:5-7

An Eternal Love

Hosea warns Israel employing the language that might be used by a husband to divorce his wife in ancient Israel in Hosea 2:2 – “she is not my wife and I am not her husband.” But God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and Isaiah assures us that it was not a divorce (Isaiah 50:1) But neither are they idle words. God will hem them in so they cannot pursue their adulterous relationship with other gods and they will realize they were better off with their husband (Hosea 2:6-7). God will restore Israel and betroth her to himself forever:

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. Hosea 2:19-20

There is an eternal, covenant love depicted here, at least from God’s perspective. Israel undeniably has a future as God’s bride. But are they a distinct people separate from believers of the present age? Is the entire nation of Israel included or just a remnant? Being a part of Israel by physical birth but without faith in the Messiah (Romans 9:6) gives one no more claim to spend eternity with him than a churchgoer today who has not been born again (Matthew 7:21). God’s saving purpose in history is not thwarted because some don’t believe!

The Church Is Called the Bride of Christ
Jesus Is the Bridegroom

The Old Testament writers use imagery depicting God as the husband of Israel to help us understand the intimacy of the relationship between God and Israel.  John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the bridegroom thereby declaring him to be God (John 3:29-30).

Jesus claims he is the bridegroom:

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. Matthew 9:15

The Savior Is Described As the Husband of Those He Saves Irrespective of the Time In Which They Live

We know from Isaiah 54:51 and Isaiah 43:3 that the Holy One of Israel is her Maker, Redeemer, Savior and Husband.

Paul tells us that Christ Jesus is our savior and redeemer through whom we receive the promise and blessing given to Abraham (Romans 10:9-10; Galatians 3:13-14). Paul describes the relationship of the Church to Christ in intimate terms similar to marriage (Ephesians 5:26-32). He also describes the church as a bride whose husband is Christ:

I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 2 Corinthians 11:2

The Lamb of God Cleanses the Saved from Their Sin, Prepares Them for Eternal Fellowship and Celebrates with a Feast

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) and who redeems the Church with his precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19).

1 John 1:7 says the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. In Revelation 7:9,14, a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language stand before the throne in front of the Lamb, a group who shout praises that salvation is from God and the Lamb (v 10), a group who has been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. All of God’s people (Isaiah 25:6-8), including Gentiles from every nation, tribe, people and language – all who have been redeemed and made clean from sin – will attend the wedding (Revelation 19:7-8).2

Same Savior, Same Husband, Different People of God?

The OT states that God is Israel’s savior, redeemer and husband.  The NT reveals that Jesus is God and is savior, redeemer and husband of the Church. Have we a different Savior? Of course not!  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Have we a different Husband? No! Isn’t the proper conclusion then that both Israel and the Church are wed to the same saving, redeeming husband – Jesus. This language, this metaphor of the marriage of the bride and husband, suggests a continuity and oneness between Israel and the Church far more than it suggests two distinct groups of people.

 

Notes:

  1. See also Isaiah 41:14;43:14;47:4;48:17;49:7
  2. This picture of God’s people attending a wedding feast with their savior when the Kingdom is fully realized can be found in other biblical references (Matthew 8:11; 22:2; Luke 13:28-29; Revelation 19:9). As God’s children saved by the blood of the Lamb, the Church surely must attend the feast.

The Church Is Not a Parenthesis In God’s Redemptive Plan!

(This is the first article in a series that explores God’s plan and the Christian’s place in the unfolding drama that is indeed the greatest story ever told. It is God’s story, not ours, yet God has graciously made our story part of a larger, exciting, awesome, and beautiful story – God’s redemption of the world.  Included in this story is the Great Tribulation.  Will Christians be Raptured and thus escape this troubling time or must they be prepared to be faithful witnesses through it?)

The teaching you receive in your particular church tradition likely forms your understanding of redemptive history and your place in God’s plan.

My first exposure to Protestant Christianity was teaching based on what I now consider a flawed theological framework – Classical Dispensationalism. According to this theological construct, history is divided into dispensations (periods of time) during which God tests humanity’s obedience and manages the relationship of humans to himself. What is peculiar or distinctive about Classical Dispensationalism is that it teaches that God is pursuing two different redemptive purposes – one resulting in a heavenly humanity and one resulting in an earthly humanity.1

Of course, if there are two kinds of people, the tendency for humans is to elevate one over the other. Usually we elevate ourselves, but in Classical Dispensationalism, Israel holds the dominant role in redemptive history while the Church is merely a parenthesis in the plan of God, inserted into history because of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah and the resulting postponement of his kingdom.

Furthermore, according to Classical Dispensationalism, the Church is comprised of a heavenly people who have no significant role in the redemptive purposes of God as they relate to the earth. To make matters worse, those who have taken this belief system to the extreme of Christian Zionism declare to us, based on Genesis 12:3, that our fate while on earth is largely dependent on how we treat unbelieving Jews living in the land of Israel!

This dualism between Israel and the Church leads to the idea that promises of a restored land (or any physical earthly promises) apply only to national Jewish Israel and must be fulfilled in a dispensation following the present dispensation of the Church. Accordingly, this necessitates the removal of the Church via the Rapture so that God can deal with Israel separately and fulfill all the prophecies literally and politically.

Teachers of this view would often remind the congregation that as Gentile believers of the Church Age we were really just a parenthesis, a Plan B, and that we should just be grateful that we have been grafted into the olive branch. I could never reconcile this idea with the teaching that God would remove the Church before the tribulation while subjecting Israel to the worst time of human history. This seemed to me an odd outcome for a group of people these same teachers acknowledged as the apple of God’s eye and his chosen people. I can only imagine that any Jew who because of his people’s suffering over the millennia has mused that maybe God should choose someone else once in a while, would be even more inclined to think that way upon learning of this prominent Christian teaching.

This view of redemptive history never inspired me to go and make disciples of all nations. If anything, it inspired me to buy “fire insurance” to keep me out of hell, root for the coming of the end times, support efforts by man to re-gather Israel (so that the timetable of dispensationalism is met allowing God to rescue me via the Rapture) and encourage others to do the same.  This view of redemptive history is prone to an ignorance of any meaningful doctrine of suffering which is a chief means used by God to sanctify his elect. For some, the danger inherent in such a view is to not become a disciple of Jesus who prepares for the arrival of the bridegroom at the 2nd Advent, but instead to become enamored with the teaching of the Rapture only to find oneself unprepared for Jesus’ return and upon his arrival be told “I don’t know you” thus becoming the one who is “left behind” (See Matthew 25:1-13).

Can this concept that the Church is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption or the idea that Israel and the Church are totally distinct from each other be supported by the biblical text? I believe the answer is a resounding no!   My next two posts in this series exploring redemptive history will raise this question – If Israel and the Church are so distinct, why are they often described in the same way, or called by the same name?

 

Notes:

  1. Dispensational thought has moved away from the Classical Dispensationalism teaching of two separate redemptive plans and away from the Revised Dispensationalism teaching that Israel and the Church are eternally distinct entities to a belief that the Church is a vital part of a single progressing redemptive plan of God. (See Progressive Dispensationalism by Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, 1993, BridgePoint Books)