Geeked Out on Eschatology

From our doctrinal statement:

Christ’s Return

We believe in the personal and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.

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We’re in the middle of Jesus’ sermon on the end times (Matthew 24-25), and preaching on the end times puts me in a bit of pickle. I’m always passionate to preach about the text at hand, digging into what today’s passage specifically says and how it applies to us. Hence the title for the series: Life on Alert. It captures the central idea Jesus was most passionate about when warning us of what was to come and calling us to watchful, expectant, and prepared for His return.

But eschatology – the study of the end times – is complex and requires you to piece together truths from many passages for even a simplistic picture of the whole. While I grew up, many preachers were geeked out about the end times – teaching with charts and detailed outlines. People fought over pre/mid/post prefixes, and churches showed super-cheesy rapture movies. But today, we’ve swung over to the other side of the pendulum and not many talk about the end times, and few followers of Christ are even aware of the Biblical issues involved.

So this is my first “Geeked-Out” blog – a very brief (believe it or not) overview of eschatology with lots of verses. (By the way, hot links are wonderful and make it easy, so look at the verses!!!). Consider this a hybrid of “Theology for Dummies” and me finally telling you what I think about controversial, end-times topics not directly related to the sermon.

Geeked-Out on Eschatology. Here we go:

First, the Second Coming means there will be a personal, visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ, accompanied with great power and glory (Matthew 24:30-31, Acts 1:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:16). We are to eagerly await the return of Christ as our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:12-13, Revelation 22:20) and encourage each other with this hope to persevere as followers of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:18). If we’re honest, much of the time we’re pretty content in our cushioned, first-world cocoon, and view His coming as something nice to be looked forward to. But when injustice and death trample us down, and we personally feel the harsh, unrelenting pain of sin, brokenness, sickness, and death, we realize this hope means everything.

His return will precede the establishment of his Millennial Kingdom (thousand year reign of Christ) on earth prior to the inauguration of the eternal, Heavenly Kingdom (Revelation 20:1-10, Revelation 21 & 22). IMHO, Revelation 20:1-6 sounds like a literal, future reign of Christ on earth (premillennialism), rather than a symbolic reference to the present age of the Church (amillennialism). A literal millennial kingdom is also consistent with other Old Testament passages, which fit well into the concept of a millennial reign of Christ on earth prior to the eternal kingdom (Isaiah 11:6-11, Isaiah 65:20; Zechariah 14:5-17). But these passages do not specifically and clearly speak of a millennial kingdom, and it’s always a little scary to base an important doctrine on just one passage, so I’d encourage grace on this issue. There’s another option, but you’re not likely to meet a postmillennialist these days who believes the Church will spread the gospel world-wide so effectively that we will usher in the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth before He returns. That’s a shame, they’re such optimistic chaps, which is probably why that view went out of vogue after World Wars I and II turned everyone into pessimists.

No one knows the exact time and circumstances of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36, Matthew 24:44; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3; 2 Peter 3:10). We are therefore called to live our lives with the knowledge that Christ could return at any moment – that his return is Imminent (James 5:7-9, 1 Peter 4:7, Revelation 22:12). Yet we must also heed Jesus’ warnings to watch the signs of the times so as to be prepared – Constant Expectancy. These signs include the preaching of the gospel to all nations (Matthew 24:14, Mark 13:10), the great tribulation (Matthew 24:15-22, Mark 13:7-8), false prophets who work signs and wonders (Matthew 24:23-24, Mark 13:22), cosmic signs in the heavens (Matthew 24:29-30, Mark 13:24-26), the rise of the antichrist, or man of lawlessness (1 John 2:18, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-10), and the salvation of Israel (Romans 11:12, Romans 11:25-26).

There appears to be a tension between knowing that Christ may return suddenly and unexpectedly with our call to watch and prepare as those who “are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (2 Thessalonians 5:4). But it’s possible to wait expectantly for something you know will happen even if you don’t know when it will happen. And, even if you think it’s unlikely, it’s possible that all of these signs have already been fulfilled. For example, Paul already talked about the Gospel going out to the whole world (Colossians 1:6). Each previous generation has watched for these signs and lived with the expectation that theirs could be the generation in which Christ returns. I find this consistent with the tone of these prophecies, which is never to cause us to think that Christ can’t return yet so that we really don’t need to strive to be ready. But rather, when we observe the possible fulfillment of these prophecies, they will intensify our expectation and further motivate us to ready for his return. Jesus used the illustration of labor pains (Matthew 24:8) to say cycles of increasing intensity of trouble and persecution will tell us the end is near while still not knowing exactly when the end will come. This could be true of the fulfillment of signs as well. For example, the Antichrist is often closely associated with the book of Revelation’s characters (beast, false prophet, dragon, serpent, and great prostitute). But even if we look for “the” antichrist in the future, we must also acknowledge that many antichrists have already come, and keep on coming (1 John 2:18, 1 John 4:3).

When putting this all together, I hold to what is often called the Historic Premillennial View (popular with the early church fathers) of the return of Christ, in which there is a single return of Christ after the tribulation – post-trib rapture – to gather up his saints and establish a millennial kingdom on earth. Honestly, this view kind of stinks because it means we don’t get raptured before all of the heavy trouble and persecution. But Scripture seems to most naturally speak of a single return of Christ, not a two-pronged secret rapture followed by His public return. And I do not find the pre-trib rapture arguments that the Church must be physically removed from the earth in order to be spared the wrath of God convincing (Revelation 3:10). We can be isolated and spared from God’s wrath while still enduring persecution and hardship from the world – they’re not the same issue. And Jesus’ warnings of the tribulation apply to all believers, not just to national Israel during the tribulation (Matthew 24:9-31). Plus, the Rapture is described as an open, public, and highly visible event, given the descriptions of a loud command, the voice of archangel, and the trumpet call of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Viewing Christ’s return as a single, unified event is also consistent with Paul’s description of the rapture occurring at the sound of the last trumpet (1 Corinthians 15:51-52), so that this trumpet call is the same as the ones referred to in other passages about the return of Christ (Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

You may notice I haven’t built a lot of arguments on the Old Testament prophecies about Israel, which is a key difference between my Historic Premillennial View and the Dispensational Premillennial View that has been made popular by the Left Behind books and movies and most of the pastors who preach about eschatology with charts and graphs when I grew up. This is because I do not believe that Scripture maintains a clear and absolute distinction between the Church and Israel, based on my understanding of Romans 9:6-8, Galatians 6:15-16, and the application of Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel to the New Testament Church (like Hebrews 8:7-13). That doesn’t mean national Israel is excluded from being of special interest to God and from having a special role in the end times. God will bring about a widespread repentance and conversion among the people of Israel (Romans 11:25-32), but He will do it within the context of the covenant of grace and Christ’s work on the cross, not by different rules from a different “dispensation”.

My primary conviction regarding eschatology is that prophecy was not intended to satisfy our curiosity, but to call us to perseverance and holy living now in light of what is to come (2 Peter 3:10-12). Our lives should reflect a real and living hope, a confident expectation, in the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:18). His return, and promise of reward for those who have served him faithfully (Matthew 24:45-47; Matthew 25:21, Matthew 25:34, Mark 9:41) should give us hope and endurance as we face trials and hardships in life (1 Corinthians 3:5-13; James 1:12).

Like I said before: if we’re honest, much of the time we’re pretty content in our cushioned, first-world cocoon, and view His coming as something “nice” to be looked forward to. But when injustice and death invade our private worlds, and we personally feel the harsh, unrelenting pain of sin, brokenness, sickness, and death, we realize this hope means everything. Eschatology is not just academic, and it’s not meant to give us pat answers to pain-filled questions. It’s to give us hope – strong hope of how the death and resurrection of Jesus will eventually play out in the ultimate stage of history. In the last 24 hours a friend had a miscarriage and a fellow church-planting pastor’s wife was murdered. I hurt and grieve with them, and wish so badly I could make it right. I can’t. Only Jesus will make things right and bring justice, healing, and restoration. Truly, seriously – Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)