A detailed evaluation of arguments for each of the views summarized above lies beyond the scope of this study. The variety of interpretations given to the Biblical data within millennialist eschatology would make such an approach difficult, and perhaps less than helpful. (Within dispensationalism there are, for example, pre-tribulationalists, post-tribulationalists, mid-tribulationalists, and among the mid-tribulationalists there are those who hold a "partial-rapture view" and an "immanent post-tribulational view.") Therefore, the Commission has here singled out what it regards as the principal considerations which, from a Lutheran perspective, must be kept in mind by those seeking guidance regarding the "end times." Especially important are the principles of interpretation (hermeneutics) employed in the study of the prophetic and apocalyptic books of the Old and New Testaments from which millennialist teaching is largely derived. And, since millennialist teaching represents a system of interpreting and shaping all aspects of eschatology, it is also necessary to review key end-time doctrines, and to do so in light of millennialist adaptations. This section will conclude with specific commentary on some of the Biblical texts which have played a determinative role in the development of some of the currently popular views concerning the end times.
A. Hermeneutical Considerations
When approaching the subject of Biblical eschatology, it is especially important that the reader of Scripture take into account the nature of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. Most of both the major and minor prophets are written in poetry, with its characteristic figurative and picturesque language. For example, Amos pictures the future eschatological blessings for God's people by saying that "the mountains shall drip sweet wine" (9:13). The prophet hardly meant here that the hills in the Middle East will one day be covered with wine.
Symbolic language of this kind is especially common in apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Revelation. In Revelation, for example, one. reads of horsemen (chap. 6), locusts (chap. 9), beasts (chap. 13), Satan chained and bound in a bottomless pit (chap. 20), and more. Moreover, in apocalyptic literature numbers are regularly used symbolically (the seven horns and seven eyes of Christ [Rev. 5:6], the 144,000 sealed [Rev. 7:2-8; 14:1-5], the 1000 years of Revelation 20). Clearly, this type of literature does not purport to be speaking literally, as if every verse is presenting straightforward, newspaper-like prose. The goal of the interpreter must be to seek the one intended or literal sense of the text, and to do so with the recognition that God in some cases has chosen to convey meaning through symbolism and figures of speech (e.g., metonymy, metaphor, and simile).
Second, certain prophetic texts are best interpreted according to what has commonly been called the shortened perspective. Events in the near and the distant future are often telescoped into one picture, like mountain peaks when seen from a distance. Sometimes the prophets focus on the immediate future and at other times on the distant future; however, both are seen at the same time. Joel's prophecy, for example, moves easily from the immediate situation of the locust plague (1:2-2:27) to the distant future of Pentecost (2:28-29) to the even more distant future of Christ's second coming (2:30-3:21). Jesus Himself prophesies in this way. In Matt. 24:15-28 (cf. Mark 13:14-23 and Luke 21:20-24) He projects into one picture both A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the final intensified persecution against the church before His second coming. Biblical prophecy often does not picture for us the intervening centuries which lie as valleys between the high points of salvation history.
Third, the interpreter should recognize the "historical times-coloring" of the prophetic message. Procedurally, the first task in interpretation is to ascertain what the text meant in its historical situation. Reflecting the historical situation in which they spoke, the prophets preached to a definite life situation and delivered their oracles in terms which their original hearers could understand. For example, Obadiah predicts that those in Mount Zion will escape God's wrath (Obadiah 17). The New Testament indicates that this prophecy is ultimately realized in the promise that the people of God, that is, all believers (the church), will be saved (e.g., Heb. 12:22). However, Obadiah does not say "the Christian church will be saved" simply because these words are not in his B. C. vocabulary.
Fourth, Old Testament prophecy, especially when dealing with eschatological themes, is often typical or typological in nature. A type is a person, institution, or event which prefigures and foreshadows a new and greater reality (the antitype). The antitype historically and theologically corresponds to, elucidates, fulfills, and eschatologically completes the type. The antitype is no mere repetition of the type but is always greater than its prefigurement. And since the Scriptures are Christological, the Old Testament's types (which are so indicated by Scripture) are related to, centered in, and fulfilled in Christ and His people, the church.
Old Testament Israel's history often contains this typological, future-oriented thrust. The prophets constantly express their hope for the future in terms of God's acts in the past, which nevertheless will be repeated on a universal scale and will exceed more gloriously anything experienced in the past. Isaiah predicts a new and greater Exodus from bondage (Is. 11:15; 43:16-19; 51:10-11; 52), a new and greater Davidic King (9:1-7; 11:1-10), and a new Jerusalem inhabited by a new people (65:17-25). The Exodus from Egypt is a prefigurement of the deliverance from bondage to sin in Christ (1 Cor. 5:6 8; 10:1-11; 1 Pet. 1 :13,18-19). David typifies the Messiah (Matt. 2:23; Luke 1:26-33; Acts 2:25-31). And, Old Testament Jerusalem foreshadows the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26-27; Heb. 12:22; Revelation 21). Thus, to insist, for example, that Jerusalem in the Old Testament (Mt. Zion of Obadiah 17) refers to the modern city of Jerusalem in the Middle East is to ignore its typological significance.
The relationship between the two Testaments is similar to that of a bud and its full blossom. In the words of St. Augustine's ancient formulation, "The New Testament is latent in the Old (the 'bud'); the Old becomes patent in the New (the 'blossom')." When studying a given prophetic oracle, therefore, it is both appropriate and necessary that the reader of the Scriptures ask these questions: Does the New Testament quote it or allude to it? How does the New Testament treat the oracle's themes and theological points? When this is done the interpreter will discover that the fulfillment is greater than the prediction, just as the antitype is greater than the type.
One cannot simply assume that there must be a literalistic correspondence in all details between the prediction and the fulfillment. For example, Ezek. 34:23-24 and 37:24-25 predict that David will rule over restored Israel. Isaiah 7:14 predicts that the Messiah's name shall be Immanuel. The New Testament, however, informs us that Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of David, is in fact this promised Messiah. Without the New Testament one might be led to expect a resurrected David whose actual name is Immanuel. To be sure, the fulfillment does at times simply correspond to the predicted details. Micah 5:2 predicts that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, a fact to which the fulfillment corresponds precisely (Matt. 2:1-6; John 7:42). However, the New Testament, and not some preconceived notion of consistent literalism, must determine in what way the prediction is fulfilled.
These observations presuppose that since God is the one Author of all Scripture, an organic unity exists within and between the Old and New Testaments, both with respect to their content (the doctrine of the Gospel in all its articles) and their function of making people wise unto salvation. The hermeneutical principle that Scripture interprets Scripture necessarily presumes this unity. Thus, we may look to the New Testament to clarify what the persons, institutions, and events mentioned by the prophets typify. Hans LaRondelle, in The Israel of God in Prophecy, states the matter well:
The New Testament has been written as the ultimate norm for the fulfillment and interpretation of Israel's prophecies. A Christian would deny his Christian faith and Lord if he reads the Old Testament as a closed entity, as the full and final message of God for Jews irrespective of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, and apart from the New Testament explanation of the Hebrew writings.
All of this is to say that the Scriptures themselves, and not twentieth century commentaries on current events, must provide the normative interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. Ezekiel 38-39 predicts that Gog of the land of Magog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, along with Persia, Cush, Put, Gomer, and Beth-togarmah will make war on Israel. Dispensationalists often identify these with the twentieth century countries of Russia (Meshech=Moscow, Tubal=Tobolsk), Iran, Ethiopia, Libya (Put), Germany (Gomer), and southern Russia (Beth-togarmah) and say that these countries will attack the modern Israelis. The New Testament, however, interprets these references typologically by viewing these enemy nations of Old Testament Israel as illustrative of all the godless world which is hostile to the church and will intensely persecute the church for a short time before Judgment Day (Rev. 20:7-10).
Fifth, the interpreter of Old Testament prophecy should especially keep in mind the Christological focus of Scripture. The Old Testament prophets were both "foretellers" and "forthtellers." They were preachers of the covenant, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel to their original hearers. Even their eschatological predictions were given not to provide unrelated bits of information or to satisfy curiosity about the future, but to lead their hearers to repentance and faith. Therefore, the interpreter must relate all prophecy, including eschatological prophecy, to the covenant, to Law and Gospel, and ultimately to Christ. The Old Testament dare not be treated as a self-contained entity to be read apart from Christ and the New Testament. This would amount to treating the Old Testament as a non-Christian Jewish book (cf. 2 Cor. 3:12-16). To insist, for instance, on the basis of Ezekiel 40-46 that the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt and that the sacrificial system will be reinstituted is to disregard Christ who is the New Temple (Matt. 12:6; John 2:19-22; Rev. 21:22) and the all-sufficient Sacrifice (Hebrews 9-10, especially 10:18). The Mosaic covenant with its sacrificial system prefigures the new covenant in Christ (Jer. 31:31-34; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 8:13). Now that the antitype has come, one cannot expect the reestablishment of the type (Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 10:1).
Sixth, Old Testament Israel prefigured Christ and His church as the New Israel. Christ is the New Israel, Israel reduced to one. He recapitulates and fulfills Old Testament Israel's history by obeying God perfectly where Israel disobeyed (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15; Deut. 6:13,16; 8:2-3; Matt. 4:1-11). "The descendants of Abraham failed and Israel's burden in its entirety came to Jesus, whom God designated as His Israel by calling Him out of Egypt, by placing the world's burdens on Him, and by raising Him to life." Christ is the promised seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed (Gen. 12:3,7; Gal. 3:8,14-16).
Since Christ is the New Israel, all those who believe in Him also become the New Israel, Abraham's descendants (Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Rom. 9:6-8, 24-26; 4:16-17; Ephesians 2; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Christ began to reconstitute Israel by first restoring the faithful remnant of the Jews (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5-42; 3:25-26). Then His mission moved out to the Gentiles so that they too might be incorporated into the people of God (Rom. 11:17-24; Acts 10; 13:46-48; 15:14-18; Gal. 3:14, 27-29; Eph. 2:11-22). Therefore, the Christian church is Israel restored, heir to the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:29).
What is said in the above paragraphs may be visualized in the following way:
This diagram illustrates God's plan for bringing back fallen creation into a proper relationship with Himself. His means for doing this narrowed from Abraham and all his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3) to the post-exilic remnant (Hag. 2:2; Zech. 8:6; Ezra 1-2) to Christ, Israel reduced to one. From there it broadened through the faithful remnant of the Jews to the whole church of believing Jews and Gentiles. The church, however, is not an end in itself but has been given the mission of making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20).
One should read the prophetic promises of the restoration of Israel (such as Ezekiel 37; Hos. 1 :8-11; Micah 4:1-5:9; Zeph. 3:11-20; Is. 11:10 16; 60-61) in light of the above. Thus, although these promises were partially fulfilled in the return from the Babylonian captivity in 538 B.C., the fulfillment comes in Christ, the New Israel, and consequently His church. The prophet Amos foresees that the Davidic dynasty will be rebuilt to incorporate the remnant of Edom and of all the nations (Amos 9:11-12). According to the apostle James this prophecy was fulfilled when, through the preaching of the Gospel, God called out from the Gentiles a "people for His name" (Acts 15:13-18). It is therefore contrary to Scripture to teach as Biblical doctrine the opinion that the fulfillment of the promises of Israel's restoration took place in the establishment of the secular state of modern Israel in 1948 and/or in the Jewish taking of Old Jerusalem in 1967.
In this connection an important difference between Old Testament Israel and the New Israel should be noted. Old Testament Israel was both church and state, both a spiritual assembly of believers and a political entity. Many of the Old Testament promises reflect this theocratic context of Old Testament Israel. The New Israel, however, is not a secular state, not even in part. The political aspects of Israel's existence in the Old Testament have fallen away in the fulfillment. Isaiah 9:7 prophesies that the Messiah will rule His kingdom on the throne of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 132:11-12). Isaiah's words are fulfilled in the crucified and risen Messiah's ascension to and session at the right hand of God where He now graciously rules over restored Israel. They are not to be fulfilled in some future "millennium" when Christ will, according to millennialist prediction, rule in modern Jerusalem (Acts 2:30-36; 13:32-37; 15:13-18; 28:26-28; Luke 1:32; 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Eph. 1:20-23; Rom. 15:12). Again, Is. 19:23-25 prophesies that Egypt and Assyria will join Israel as God's people. The inclusion of Gentile believers in the New Israel, and not Assyria or Egypt as such (Acts 15:14, 17; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 15:8-12), marks the fulfillment of Isaiah 19.
This is not to say that the Old Testament everywhere pictures the Messiah and His kingdom within a political frame of reference. Many of the Old Testament's messianic promises were not formulated in political terms. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 pictures a suffering servant whose mission is to "make many to be accounted righteous" by bearing their iniquities as a substitutionary sacrifice. He brings salvation to all nations (Is. 49:6; 42:6-7). Similarly, the "one like a son of man" coming in the clouds in Dan. 7:13-14 is not an earthly, political king. Indeed, the kingdom which He establishes is clearly in contrast to temporal regnancy (cf. Dan. 2:44). Nowhere is the new Israel over which the Messiah rules portrayed as a secular, political entity. In fact, Jesus explicitly rejected the notion that His messianic office could be conceived of in political terms (John 18:36-37; cf. Luke 24:44-47).
The distinction between the messianic kingdom as a spiritual reality and civil government as a temporal, political reality is maintained in the Lutheran confessional writings. The Augsburg Confession teaches that "all government in the world and all established rule and laws were instituted and ordained by God for the sake of good order" and therefore are an "outward and temporal ... mode of existence" (AC XVI, 1, 4). The Gospel teaches, however, "an inward and eternal mode of existence and righteousness of the heart" (AC XVI, 4). "Christ's kingdom is spiritual; it is the knowledge of God in the heart, the fear of God and faith, the beginning of eternal righteousness and eternal life" (Ap XVI, 2). Thus, "the Gospel does not legislate for the civil estate," though it does command us "to obey the existing laws" (Ap XVI, 6, 3). As a hermeneutical assumption this distinction between civil government and the kingdom of Christ serves to prevent a political reading of those texts which speak of the spiritual reign of God. Such a political rendering is not an uncommon approach in millennialist interpretation, however.
Seventh, the land of Israel prefigures Christ and ultimately the new heavens and earth. Just as the New Testament transcends the ethnic and political aspects of Israel, so it also transcends the geographical limitations of the Promised Land.
To understand this point, one must note the theological significance of the land of Israel. In the Old Testament, the land of Israel or Palestine was like a miniature world in which God illustrated His kingdom. The land of Israel was promised as the place (Deut. 4:21, 38) where God would bless His people, the children of Israel (Deut. 26:15; 28:8) and give them rest (Deut. 12:9-10; 25:19). However, in the New Testament Christ is the heir of the promise given to Abraham and is the one through whom (Gal. 3:15-18; Heb. 1:2; 6:19-20; Col. 1:27; Titus 2:13) the New Israel receives God's blessings (Rom. 15:29) and true rest (Matt. 11:28-29). LaRondelle, states in this connection:
Wherever Christ is, there is the holy space. This is the essence of the New Testament application of Israel's holy territory. For the holiness of old Jerusalem, the New Testament substitutes the holiness of Jesus Christ. It "Christifies" the old territorial holiness and thus transcends its limitations. This should not be regarded as the New Testament rejection of Israel's territorial promise, but rather as its fulfillment and confirmation in Christ.
Since those who have fellowship with Christ possess eternal life, one can also say that the Promised Land of Israel foreshadowed ultimately the Promised Land, the new heavens and new earth (Is. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3). Believers look forward to the full enjoyment of their new inheritance (Rev. 21:1, 7; Eph. 1:13-14; Col. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:3-5), when God will bless the church with eternal rest, a rest which is already ours through faith in Christ (Heb. 3:1; 4:1, 8-10).
Consider how the New Testament treats God 's promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham (Gen. 12:1,7; 15:18-21; 17:8). Both Rom. 4:13 and Heb. 11:8-1 6 interpret this promise as a reference to the new "world" and the "heavenly" country (cf. Heb. 2:5). Jesus Himself widened the scope of this territory to encompass the new earth (cf. Matt. 5:5; Ps. 37:11). The land of Palestine in which Israel lived was, as it were, a down payment or pledge of this future world. Therefore, although the promises of the prophets that Israel will dwell in the land were partially realized in exilic Israel's return to Palestine from Babylonian captivity, the ultimate fulfillment of these promises comes in Christ and the new earth, not in a literal return of Jews to the land of Palestine.
For an evaluation of millennialist views of the end times it is helpful to make use of a distinction between what some theologians have referred to as inaugurated eschatology and future eschatology. The term inaugurated eschatology embraces everything that the Old and New Testament Scriptures teach concerning the believer's present possession and enjoyment of blessings which will be fully experienced whenever Christ comes again. Future eschatology focuses on events which still lie in the future, such as the resurrection, judgment, and new heavens and new earth.
1. Inaugurated Eschatology
The Old Testament throughout has a future-oriented thrust to it. The faith of the Old Testament believer was thoroughly eschatological. As the writer to the Hebrews states, "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar" (11:13). The Old Testament eschatological outlook can be summarized under the following seven points:
a. Old Testament believers awaited a future Redeemer. From Gen.3:15 onward the Old Testament points forward to the promised Redeemer. He will be the culmination and fulfillment of the offices of prophet (Deut. 18:15), priest (Ps. 110:4), and king (Zech.9:9), the "servant" whose suffering atones for humankind's sins (Is. 52:13 53:12), and the glorious "one like a son of man" to whom is given eternal "dominion and glory and kingdom" (Dan. 7:13-14). b. The Old Testament writers look forward to the eschatological kingdom of God when God's reign will become a reality experienced fully not only by Israel but by the world, whether in judgment or in salvation (Psalm 93; 95-99; Dan. 2:44-45; 7; Isaiah 24-27; Obadiah 21). c. The Old Testament anticipates the new covenant which will bring forgiveness of sins and constitute the fulfillment of God's covenants in the past with Abraham, Israel, and David (Jer. 31:31-34). d. The restoration of Israel is a central element of eschatological expectation in the Old Testament period. The prophets longed for the day when God would restore His repentant, believing, and purified people (Ezekiel 36; Isaiah 35; 54-55; 61).
e. The outpouring of the Spirit was another object of the eschatological hope possessed by God's people in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-29; Ezek. 36:27; 39:29; Is. 32:15; 44:3).
f. The prophets await the day of the Lord which will bring God's wrath on the wicked but salvation for the believers (Is. 13:6-16; Zeph. 1; 3:9-20; Joel 2:32; Obadiah 15-21; Malachi 4).
g. The Old Testament looks forward to the new heavens and the new earth. As the earth is cursed as a result of the fall (Gen. 3:17-18), so also the earth must share in God's final act of redemption (Is. 11:6 9; 32:15; 35:1-7; 65:17; 66:22).
With the first advent of Christ, these Old Testament eschatological hopes are fulfilled. Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited, promised Messiah who has defeated Satan, sin, and death (Matt. 12:22-29; John 12:31; Col. 2:11-15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:55-57; 1 John 3:8). In His life, death, and resurrection the eschatological kingdom of God has appeared in history (Matt. 12:28; Luke 1:32-33, 68-75; 11:20; 17:20-21; Col. 1:13-14; Rev. 1:6; Rom. 14:17). The New Israel (Gal. 3:29; 6:16; Rom. 9:6-8) now receives the forgiveness of sins and all the blessings of the New Covenant in Christ (1 Cor. 11:25; Hebrews 8-10). The promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit has already come in Christ (Acts 2; 8:14-17; 10:44-48; 19:1-7; Eph. 1:13-14; Titus 3:5-6; 1 Cor. 6:19). The great Day of the Lord has arrived in Christ (Luke 19:44; Matt. 3:1-12; 2 Cor. 6:1-2). And those who are in Christ already participate in the new creation; they are, in fact, "a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). The eschaton has been inaugurated; "the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor. 10:11). Through the Gospel and the sacraments the Christian already now receives God's promised eschatological blessings by faith (Heb. 6:5; 1 Pet. 2:2-3; Rom. 8:37-39; 6:1-11).
Thus, the Christian now lives in the age of the fulfillment, in the last days (Acts 2:17; 3:20-21; Heb. 1:1-2; 9:26; 1 John 2:18; 1 Pet. 1:20). The New Testament declares that the messianic age promised in the Old Testament began at Christ's first advent. The promised Messiah is now graciously ruling on the throne of David through the Gospel and the sacraments, the means through which He extends His gracious invitation (Matt. 22:1-14). The messianic age which the New Testament declares a present reality cannot be viewed, therefore, as only in the future.
And yet, Christians still await the consummation of these divine promises. They await the Messiah's second coming when the kingdom of God will be made fully manifest (Matt. 7:21-23; 8:11-12; 25:31-46; Luke 21:31; 22:29-30; 1 Cor. 6:9; 15:50; 2 Tim. 4:18). Christians eagerly anticipate the consummation of the New Covenant when they will perfectly know the Lord and sin no more (Jer. 31:31-34). They look forward to the day when all of the New Israel, Christians living and dead, will be gathered together forever to be with the Lord (Matt. 19:28; 24:30-31; 25:31-34; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The gift of the Holy Spirit which was poured out on each of them at their baptisms is the down payment and guarantee of their inheritance of future glory and of the reception of their spiritual body (Eph. 1:14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 8:23). And Christians faithfully wait for the future day of the Lord when they will dwell with Him forever in the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pet. 3:10-13; 1 Thess. 5:1-11).
Therefore, the Christian lives in the proverbial tension between the now and the not yet. This tension underlies everything that the Scriptures teach about eschatology. On the one hand, the end has arrived in Christ. The believer now receives the promised eschatological blessings through the Gospel and sacraments. On the other hand, the consummation is still a future reality. The Christian has not yet entered into the glories of heaven.
The life of Christians in this tension is a life under the cross (Matt. 16:24-25); the eschatological blessings which Christians have are theirs by faith, not by sight (Rom. 8:24-25). Hence, believers can expect to suffer and be persecuted in this life. But the abundant life which Jesus came to give enables them to rise above suffering and, in the midst of their suffering, helps them to focus on the future consummation (Luke 6:22-23, 26; 1 Thess. 3:4; 1 Pet. 5:10; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Col. 3:1-4; Rom. 8:18-25). Only on the last day will Christians move from a life under the cross to a life of glory.
2. Future Eschatology
When the Scriptures speak of future events of the end times they do so by simultaneously pointing to what has been called the great eschatological act of the past. Since Christ has won the decisive victory over Satan, sin, and death in the past, future eschatological events are but the culmination of what has already been set in motion by this pivotal event in human history. With this in mind, we now proceed to look in detail at those aspects of "future eschatology" which are crucial for a proper interpretation of the end times.
a. The Signs of the End Scripture reveals numerous signs which signal Christ's return (especially in Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, and 2 Thessalonians 2). Before considering these signs, it is important that their purpose be understood.
First, the signs of the end do not signify events which will happen only in the future. The church of every generation can expect to witness their occurrence. Wars, famines, earthquakes, and anti-Christian forces were present already in the first century A.D., and they continue today. Even Jesus' promise that the Gospel will be preached throughout the world can be said to have been fulfilled already in the days of the apostles (Matt. 24:14; Rom. 1:8; 10:18; Col. 1:23). To be sure, these signs will become more evident and intense immediately preceding Christ's return, but every generation was and is acting responsibly in expecting Christ's return in its own lifetime. Watchfulness, not laziness or apathy fostered by the mistaken notion that Christ's return must be far off in the future, must characterize the church's constant posture (Matt. 24:33, 42-44; Luke 21:28; 1 Thess. 5:6).
Second, the signs of the end are not intended to provide Christians a means by which they may calculate the exact time of Christ's second coming. In fact, the New Testament warns against all such efforts at date setting (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32; 1 Thess. 5:1-3; 2 Pet. 3:10). The signs of the end presented in Scripture assure the Christian that Christ will surely return.
Third, observing the signs has a positive significance for life in the present. They serve as a reminder of God's call to watchfulness, holy living, and service to Christ (Matthew 25; Rom. 13:11-14; 2 Thessalonians 2-3; James 5:7-11; 2 Pet. 3:11-18).
Finally, the signs of the end do not belong necessarily to the category of the extraordinary or spectacular. The exhortations to be watchful, given by Jesus and the apostles, presuppose that the signs will be a part of the ordinary course of history (such not uncommon events as wars, earthquakes, famines, apostasy, and the worldwide proclamation of the Gospel) and therefore that discernment is necessary. Such discernment is also required, of course, in the case of the extraordinary; counterfeit "signs and wonders" are indeed possible (2 Thess. 2:9; Matt. 24:24).
We now proceed to a discussion of the individual "signs." Anthony Hoekema's outline of "the signs of the times" serves as a useful way to present what the Scriptures teach concerning the events which are to take place prior to Christ's coming. Hoekema's grouping (slightly revised here) is as follows:
1. The sign evidencing the grace of God: the proclamation of the Gospel to all nations.
2. The signs indicating divine judgment
c. famines and pestilences
d. signs in the heavens;
3. The signs indicating opposition to God
The most important sign of the end is the missionary preaching of the Gospel to all nations (Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10). It gives to the present age its primary purpose and significance (Matt. 28:18-20). The period between Christ's two advents is preeminently the missionary age, the time when God graciously calls all people to be saved, a time foretold by the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Is. 2:1-4; 42:6-7; 49:6; 52:10; Amos 9:11-12). This sign, therefore, means that the church will carry out an ambitious program of outreach to the Jew and to the Gentile. As the church proclaims the Gospel to all nations, nothing shall prevail against it, not even the gates of hell (Matt. 16:16-19; Rev. 7:3; 11:3-6; 20:1-6). However, we must humbly admit that only God knows when this sign will have been completely fulfilled.
The next group of signs--wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and signs in the heavens--indicates divine judgment (Is. 19:2; 2 Chron. 15:6; Matt. 24:6-8; Mark 13:7-8; Luke 21:9-11, 25-26; Joel 2:30-31). This does not mean, of course, that people who suffer from such disasters are necessarily targeted as the special objects of God's wrath (cf. Luke 13:1-5). But disruptions of this kind in nature are reminders of the fact that the present fallen world is under God's curse (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:19-22). They are manifestations of God's wrath and signal the need for all sinners to repent (Luke 13:3, 5; Rev. 9:20-21; 16:9). Christians, however, are urged to regard these signs also as "birth pangs" of a new and better world (Rom. 8:22; Matt. 24:8; Rev. 21:1-4) and to take comfort in the fact that God promises to protect and preserve them in the midst of this suffering (Rev. 3:10; 7:3-4).
The third group of signs indicates opposition to God and His kingdom: tribulation, apostasy, and Antichrist. As the other signs, the sign of tribulation applies to the entire period between Christ's two comings. Just as Old Testament Israel experienced suffering and distress throughout its history, so the church can expect no less. Jesus saw trouble ahead for His people (Matt. 5:10-12; John 15:18- 20; 16:33). Because of the continued opposition of the world to the kingdom of God, Christians can expect to suffer persecution in various forms throughout this age and are called to endure in faith until the end (Matt. 24:9; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19).
However, the Scriptures also teach that tribulation for the church will intensify toward the end. The Old Testament predicts heightened persecution against God's people prior to the end (Dan. 12:1; Ezekiel 38-39; Zech. 14:1-2). Jesus speaks of a "great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be" (Matt. 24:21), immediately after which He will return (Matt. 24:29-31; cf. Mark 13:14-27; Luke 21:20-28). When Jesus points to the "desolating sacrilege" in Matt. 24:15, He probably is referring to a blasphemous desecration and destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, which then typifies the Antichrist who arises in the church (cf. Luke 21:20; 2 Thessalonians 2). With prophetic "shortened perspective" (see footnote 11), Jesus thus places both the destruction of Jerusalem and the final intensified persecution against the church into the same picture. Clearly this persecution is not limited to Jerusalem or the Jewish nation but is directed against the whole church, since in Matt. 24:22 Jesus says that those days will be shortened "for the sake of the elect." Moreover, Jesus addresses His discourse to His disciples as representatives of the church.
The Revelation to John also describes this final persecution against the church, although in symbolical language (9:13-19; 11:7-10; 16:12-16; 19:19; 20:7-9). This is Satan's "little season," when he gathers the anti-Christian world in an attempt to destroy the church and prevent it from freely preaching the Gospel to all nations (Rev. 20:7-9; Ezekiel 38-39). Satan's final assault is symbolically called the battle of Armageddon, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew har megiddo--"hill of Megiddo," an expression that may allude to the famous battles which took place there in the Old Testament. But in view of the nature of apocalyptic language, these verses should not be interpreted literally as if they referred to a world war in the Middle East. Nor is this great tribulation to be understood as lasting 3-1/2 or 7 years, since the numbers in Daniel and Revelation are also symbolic. When Satan's "little season" has begun or is to begin cannot be computed exactly. Since opposition to the Christian church is widespread in our day, however, there is every reason to believe that we are already in this period of time.
The purpose of the sign of tribulation, too, is to exhort Christians to "look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28; cf. Matt. 24:33; Mark 13:29). Tribulation is also God's means of refining the church and "proving" the Christian (1 Pet. 1:6 7; 4:12; Zech. 13:9; Dan. 12:10). This judgment which overtakes the church is the last preliminary to Judgment Day (1 Pet. 4:17), and as such "it warns the members of the church that to seek to escape suffering by renouncing the faith is fatally senseless; they will escape present suffering only to find certain doom."
Another sign of the end which indicates opposition to God is the sign of apostasy or "falling away." The apostasies of the New Testament era were foreshadowed in the Old Testament. The Old Testament records a history of increasing apostasy which ultimately led to the destruction of both the northern and southern kingdoms. The history of the Christian church is also marked by a continuing apostasy throughout the period between Christ's two advents (Matt. 24:10-12; Heb. 6:6; 10:29; 2 Pet. 2:20-22; 1 John 2:19; Gal. 6:12-13).
However, the New Testament also predicts a final apostasy or rebellion. Jesus speaks of false Christs and false prophets leading many astray (Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22). The apostle Paul teaches that the second advent of Christ will not come "unless the rebellion [apostasy] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed" (2 Thess. 2:3). Since this sign is called a falling away or apostasy and the "man of lawlessness" takes his seat in the visible church (i.e., "the temple of God," v. 4), we may assume that those who fall away will be associated with the Christian church. This final, climactic apostasy, like the sign of tribulation, will be an intensification and culmination of a rebellion which began already in Paul's day (2 Thess. 2:7).
Finally, opposition to God is marked by the sign of the Antichrist. The term Antichrist is found in John's epistles (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) and signifies both a substitute Christ (Greek anti means "in place of") and an opponent of Christ.
The New Testament predicts that the church throughout its history will witness many antichrists (Matt. 24:5, 23-24; Mark 13:6, 21-22; Luke: 21:8; 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). All false teachers who teach contrary to Christ's Word are opponents of Christ and, insofar as they do so, are anti-Christ.
However, the Scriptures also teach that there is one climactic "Antichrist" (Dan. 7:8, 11, 20-21, 24-25; 11:36-45; 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 John 2:18; 4:3; Revelation 17-18). In the opinion of most exegetes, this Antichrist was prefigured by Antiochus Epiphanes who profaned the Jerusalem temple by dedicating it to Zeus, by taking away the continual burnt offering, and by placing a pagan altar on top of the burnt offering altar in 167-164 B.C. (cf. Dan 8:9-13, 23-25; 11:21-35). He was also prefigured, it is held, by the emperor-worshipping Roman armies which profaned ("desolating sacrilege") and destroyed the Jerusalem temple in A.D. 70 (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20). The Antichrist's satanic counter-thrust to God's kingdom can also be expected to intensify towards the end.
The Scriptures reveal the following distinguishing marks of the Antichrist: 1. Just as Antiochus Epiphanes profaned the temple, so the Antichrist takes his seat in the "temple of God," that is, in the Christian church (cf. 2 Thess. 2:4; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 1 Tim. 3:15). 2. He is not Satan himself but operates "by the activity of Satan" (2 Thess. 2:9). 3. He ascribes to himself truly divine power and exhibits himself as God (Dan. 7:25; 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:4). 4. He is a pseudo-Christ, a satanic perversion of Christ. He has a "coming" to imitate the "coming" of Christ (2 Thess. 2:8-9). He performs "signs and wonders" (2 Thess. 2:9) to imitate the Christ who was "attested. . .by God with mighty works and wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22). He represents a "mystery of lawlessness" (2 Thess. 2:7) to imitate the "mystery of Christ" (Eph. 3:4; Col. 4:3) and brings a "wicked deception," "strong delusion," and "what is false" to imitate and oppose the truth of the Gospel (2 Thess. 2:10-12). Thus, he denies Christ and persecutes Christians (1 John 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 7; Dan. 7:25). 5. He remains until Judgment Day when Christ will slay him (Dan. 7:13-14, 26; 2 Thess. 2:8).
When St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he saw a restraint placed on the "man of lawlessness" which would be removed before this "man of lawlessness" would be revealed. Paul refers to this restraint as a thing ("what is restraining him," 2 Thess. 2:6) and as a person ("he who now restrains," 2:7). We do not know what or whom he had in mind. Perhaps he meant the Roman empire and emperor whose benign power of law and order permitted the Gospel to "speed on and triumph" (3:1). One cannot be certain.
In any case, the workings of the Antichrist are under the sovereign control of God. Martin Franzmann rightly concludes, "There is no uneasy balance of power between the satanic and the divine; the man of lawlessness must, unwittingly and unwillingly, serve God's purposes. Through him God executes His judgment, that fearful judgment which delivers up men who will not love the truth to the lie which they desire. Only those become victims of the potent lie who 'suppress the truth' (Rom. 1:18) and so invoke the wrath of God." Christians are called to "stand firm" in the faith in the face of the one who comes "by the activity of Satan" (2 Thess. 2:9, 15).
Concerning the historical identity of the Antichrist, we affirm the Lutheran Confessions' identification of the Antichrist with the office of the papacy whose official claims continue to correspond to the Scriptural marks listed above. It is important, however, that we observe the distinction which the Lutheran Confessors made between the office of the pope (papacy) and the individual men who fill that office. The latter could be Christians themselves. We do not presume to judge any person's heart. Also, we acknowledge the possibility that the historical form of the Antichrist could change. Of course, in that case another identified by these marks would arise.
b. The Second Advent of Christ
The New Testament Scriptures teach that Christ will one day visibly return in glory. They refer to His second advent by using several different If, terms: "coming" or "presence" (parousia), "appearance" (epiphaneia; s.v. phaneroo), "revelation" (apokalypsis), and "the day of the Lord" (he hemera tou Kyriou). A study of the texts in which these terms occur reveals that Christ's second advent is one event at the end of history. The Scriptures teach the following concerning Christ's second and final coming:
1. Christ will come visibly and all people will see Him (Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:27, 30; Luke 17:22-24; 21:27, 35; Mark 13:24-26; 14:62; Rev. 1:7).
2. Christ will come in glory surrounded by the host of His angels (Matt. 13:39-43, 49; 16:27; 24:30-31; 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7; Rev. 19:11-14; Titus 2:13; Jude 14, 24; 1 Pet. 4:13; Zech. 14:3).
3. When Christ returns, a bodily resurrection of all the dead will take place. Believers will be raised to salvation and unbelievers to damnation (John 5:27-29; 6:39-40, 44, 54; Rev. 20:11-15; 1 Cor. 15:12-57; Dan. 12:1-2). All believers, both dead and living, will, be "caught up" to "meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:13-17). Death will be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26, 54-57; Rev. 20:14).
4. When Christ returns, He will judge all people, both the living and the dead (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Rom. 2:16, 2 Tim. 4:1, 8; Jude 14-15; Rev. 20:11-15). Believers will receive eternal salvation and unbelievers eternal damnation (Matt. 25:31-46; 1 Pet. 1:4-5, 7; 5:4; 1 John 3:2; Heb. 9:28; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:6-10). Satan and the Antichrist will be destroyed (2 Thess. 2:8; Rev. 20:10).
5. When Christ returns, "new heavens and a new earth" will be created (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Nowhere, however, do the Scriptures teach that at His return Christ will establish a this-worldly, political kingdom or "millennium."
The date of Christ's second advent is unknown. Jesus Himself taught, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matt. 24:36; cf. Matt. 24:42, 44; 25:13; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Peter 3). The times or seasons fixed by the authority of the Father are "not for you to know" (Acts I:7). Therefore, speculation concerning the time of the end is forbidden. This much can be said: the fact that God has delayed it now for almost two millennia is due to His patience and mercy, for "the Lord is not slow about His promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). The Scriptural teaching concerning Christ's second advent has a very practical purpose. God wills that all come to believe in the Gospel, lead a holy life in service to Christ, and eagerly await the last day with patience (Rom. 13:12-14; Titus 2:11-13; 1 Pet. 1:13-15; 2 Pet. 3:11-12; 1 John 3:2-3; 1 Tim. 6:14; Matt. 25:14-30).
c. The Resurrection (General)
One general resurrection of the body is a central truth in Biblical eschatology. The Scriptures clearly teach that the Triune God will raise all the dead bodily at Christ's second coming, will give to the believers eternal life, and deliver the unbelievers to eternal damnation.
Jesus taught, "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29; cf. Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15). In Revelation 20 the apostle John speaks of this single, general resurrection when he writes, "And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and they were judged--each one--according to their works" (20:13; our translation). This "general" resurrection will occur at Christ's second advent, which is the "last day" John 5:28-29; 6:39-40, 54; 1 Thess. 4:16; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:23). The premillennialist opinion that there will be two, three, or more bodily resurrections separated by periods of time simply cannot be sustained on the basis of what the Scriptures themselves teach concerning the resurrection of the dead.
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