Jan. 29, 2012 Mark 13:3-13 (Sermon given at Kobe Union Church)
Ever since I can remember, there have been various individuals and groups telling us that the end of the world is near. You no doubt remember the hullabaloo last year surrounding the claims of Harold Camping that the rapture would occur on May 21, followed by a period of tribulation on earth that would culminate in the end of the world on October 21. And this year, we all have to "worry" about the end of the world predicted by the end of the ancient Mayan calendar this coming December. I'm not sure if there is a similar prediction coming up for 2013, but it wouldn't surprise me. It just seems that we humans have a proclivity to want to know the future, and so anyone who claims to have such information automatically attracts attention.
The Bible clearly teaches that our present world will come to an end sometime in the future, when God creates a wholly new and wonderful realm for our resurrected bodies to live in. And it gives various descriptions of the process that the world we know will go through as that great transformation takes place. The problem, of course, is that the visions various biblical writers were given of this transformational process are described to us through various symbols and expressions that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Thus, it's only natural that followers of Christ have developed a wide variety of interpretations as to how this will all play out.
So, what are we to make of it all? How should Christians view biblical teachings concerning the "end times?" Needless to say, this is not an easy subject to deal with, as there are such widely divergent and strongly held views as to how these portions of Scripture are to be understood. My purpose in bringing up this subject today is not to give a definitive view on this as though I have all of the answers, for I do not. There are considerable portions of what is termed "apocalyptic" literature in the Bible — primarily the books of Daniel in the Old Testament and The Revelation of John in the New Testament — that I find very difficult to understand. What I hope to do is to give you a few handles with which to take a hold of this subject and to understand its purpose in the Scriptures and in God's overall plan, as well as its relevance for our situation today.
If you have ever read through the book of Revelation, you know how difficult some parts of it are to understand. Basically, it is a recording of the visions the apostle John had in his later years while in exile on the Greek island of Patmos. Much of it sounds like a weird dream, with dragon-like creatures and a lake of fire, and it contains quite an array of symbolic numbers and events. The overall pattern of the book, however, is a series of "blood and gore" scenes on the earth of people being judged, interspersed with scenes in heaven where God and the "Lamb," that is, Jesus, are being worshiped and praised with great rejoicing. It all climaxes, then, with a beautiful description of "the new heaven and the new earth."
While there are several important passages relating to the end times in other parts of the Bible, including passages such as in our Scripture reading in Mark 13 and the corresponding sections in Matthew and Luke, by far the most comprehensive passages are those found in the books of Daniel and Revelation. The setting of Daniel is around 550 B.C. during the time when the Jewish nation had been carted off to Babylon in slavery. The well-known story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being thrown into the furnace and coming out unharmed and the story of Daniel in the lion's den are recorded in this book. The major portions of this book, however, are accounts of the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel's interpretations of those dreams, along with the visions of Daniel himself. These all have to do with future kingdoms climaxing with the end of the world and the founding of a new world. For instance, there is King Nebuchadnezzar's first dream about a statue with a golden head, a silver chest and arms, a bronze mid-section, legs of iron, and feet of pieces of clay and iron mixed together. The statue was then crushed by a great stone that then grew into a great mountain covering the earth.
God then gives Daniel the interpretation of this dream, which is that Nebuchadnezzar himself is the head of gold, with the other parts representing future kingdoms, which are generally thought to be the Persians, Alexander the Great, and then Rome (the legs of iron but with weakness in the feet). The rock that crushes it all and then grows into a high mountain, which represents the Kingdom of God, would seem to refer to the spiritual kingdom of the Church itself.
At any rate, this is representative of the kind of literature we are dealing with in both Daniel and Revelation. Needless to say, because these passages are so symbolic in nature and refer to such an important topic as the events of world history leading up to the end, the way is wide open for all sorts of abuses by a variety of far-out groups. We have all heard of and perhaps even talked to people who are something like that stereotype depicted in those cartoons of a bearded man in a white robe holding up a sign saying, "Repent! The end is near!" In one sense, of course, the message of this stereotype is very relevant, for "repenting" — that is, turning away from our wrong attitudes and deeds and turning towards God — is valid anytime.
Throughout history, though, there have been those who meant by this that we should come out of society and its evils to hole away somewhere and wait for the end to come (which, of course, is said to be just around the corner). Even before Christ, there were the Essenes, a group of Jews who desired to separate themselves from the decadence of their day and to help usher in the restored Kingdom of God in Israel. It was because of them, however, that today we have the famous "Dead Sea Scrolls," ancient copies of various Old Testament books clearly showing how accurately the biblical texts have been transmitted over the centuries. So God certainly used them in a way they could not have imagined. Likewise, even the disciples of Jesus were looking for a quick return of their Lord, and thus we have several references in the New Testament letters indicating that at first they believed that the end of the age and the second coming of Christ would occur during their own lifetimes. Later on, of course, they began to realize that wasn't God's plan after all.
During the almost 2000 years of church history since then, there have been various movements similar to the Essenes — particularly during the last couple of centuries. I am not aware of any large-scale movements during the Middle Ages that focused on end-of-the-world prophecies, but there was certainly a powerful movement centered on escaping the evils of society by withdrawing into monasteries. Likewise, the Catholic Church and the various state churches of Europe, with their highly centralized power structures, have not tended to be a fertile breeding ground for such prophecy-emphasizing movements. Basically, such movements have arisen in much more decentralized churches such as those found in American Protestantism and similar situations elsewhere.
In the 1840's, a New England farmer named William Miller studied the Bible thoroughly (particularly Daniel and Revelation, of course), and he became convinced through his calculations that Christ would return to earth exactly 2300 years after Ezra's return to Jerusalem in 457 B.C. He convinced many thousands of people that Christ was returning on October 22, 1844, and this resulted in the spectacle of thousands of people dressed in white robes on top of a New England mountain waiting expectantly to fly up into the air to meet the Lord.
When things didn't work out that way, however, they had a bit of a problem and they figured that the only way to get around it was to spiritualize things by saying that Christ simply had entered an invisible heavenly sanctuary on that date instead of the earthly one they had expected. This all resulted in a new denomination, the 7th Day Adventists, with its unique emphasis on Saturday worship and dietary rules among other distinctives. While that church in recent years has gone a long ways towards coming back into the Christian mainstream, an offshoot of it, the Jehovah's Witnesses, certainly has not; and because their view of Christ and other important doctrines is so very different from Christian understanding, there is no way they can legitimately even be called a part of Christianity. Even here in Japan, practically everybody has had the experience of greeting these dedicated but misguided people at their front doors, and it is a real problem for the Christian Church, as the Jehovah's Witnesses, along with the Mormons and Moonies, label themselves as "Christian," thus causing considerable confusion among the Japanese.
But we must admit that a truly holistic view of the Bible is often lacking clear across the spectrum of Christian thinking. The "liberals" are often just as guilty as the "fundamentalists," as they concentrate only on those Scriptures that support their views of social liberation and the like. I myself come from a "mainstream" church that tends to be rather liberal — at least at the leadership level anyway, and as a whole, it has dealt very little with this whole field of Bible prophecy. This area of Scripture has tended to become the specialty of groups that are labeled "fundamentalists" as well as, of course, the outright "mind control" cults. This is not as it should be. These sections of Scripture are a part of the whole of Scripture, and they need to be understood within the context of that whole.
During the resurgence of interest in biblical prophecy over the last 50 years or so, there have been a number of popularized books and movies produced on this theme. Some of you may have read some of the popular "Left Behind" series of 16 novels that were the rage in the late 90's. In fact, in 1998, 4 books from that series occupied the top 4 positions on the New York Times Best-seller list at the same time, and the total sales for the series is now over 65 million copies. While these are fictional novels, they nevertheless claim to be based in an accurate portrayal of biblical prophecy and what the world will be like immediately before and after the "rapture" at the beginning of the "7-year tribulation" period just prior to Christ's Second Coming on "the Day of Judgment."
I'll come back to these dramatizations of the final days in movies and books later, but first of all, what about this event called the "rapture?" Just what does it mean? The clearest teaching about this event is found not in what we normally think of as the prophecy sections of the Bible, but in Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, 4:16-17. Paul is talking about that day when the Lord comes and says, "For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever."
With these words, it is easy to see why Christians have visualized themselves suddenly floating off into the clouds. In Matthew 24, Jesus talks about his coming again on "the clouds of heaven with power and great glory," and then he says in versus 40 and 42, "Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.... Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." Perhaps you have heard imagined descriptions of what this would be like. For instance, some have painted lurid descriptions of jet planes and cars crashing all over the place as those pilots and drivers who are Christians suddenly disappear, leaving no one in control. It would be mass chaos! And those who are left will supposedly rationalize it away as being an attack by UFOs that suddenly takes away millions of people from the earth! How does that grab you?
Now, I don't want to suggest for a moment that there is no reality at all to the "rapture" and the "tribulation," etc. It is clear that the Scriptures teach that some rather dramatic and unusual events are going to happen when this age comes to a close at Christ's return. But the details of exactly what is going to happen are told to us in only general and symbolic terms. The fact that God will one day intervene dramatically in world history and bring about the demise of all that is evil and unjust is our great hope. No matter how foreboding the future looks, even with everything seeming to be out of control and heading towards the ultimate crisis, we know that God is still in control, and ultimately everything will be reconciled in him.
Thus, what disturbs me most about this is that by and large, those who put their major emphasis on Bible prophecy tend to be very dogmatic in their interpretations of the details as to how these prophecies will be fulfilled — as well as, of course, not giving a balanced view of "the whole council of Scripture." During my college days some 40 plus years ago, there was a period when I was really into Bible prophecy, avidly reading every book I could get on the subject. One book I was particularly impressed with at the time was Hal Lindsay's "The Late Great Planet Earth." This book, along with many others of a similar vein, takes each symbolism and ties it directly to a specific country, place or person in today's world. For instance, the account in Revelations of the dragon with seven heads and ten horns clearly represents, according to the book, the European Common Market! Right? Well, at the time there were only 9 countries in the EC, and supposedly one more nation was to join to make it 10 nations (or "horns" in the symbolism), and the headquarters was to be moved to Rome, "the city of seven hills". Well, unfortunately for Mr. Lindsay, the headquarters is still in Brussels and there are several more than 10 "horns" in the European Union today. Likewise, what seemed like a very convincing argument was made for the "King of the North" being that "evil empire" the Soviet Union. But that too appears to have bitten the dust — at least for the time being anyway. Perhaps things will change in the future and those symbols will be realized that way after all. The probabilities for that would seem to be rather remote, but then who am I to say just as dogmatically that they won't? But then the people of Jesus' day thought that they too knew what to expect when the Messiah came the first time didn't they? They knew their Scriptures very well, and yet they completely mistook what was going to happen. The many prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah as a lowly figure who would be rejected and killed were all clearly written before their eyes. But it was only after they were fulfilled in Jesus that they made the proper connections. In a very real way, we are in a similar position with respect to the prophecies about the second coming of Jesus and all of the events that surround that. We perhaps have an advantage over them in the sense that we don't have the problem of still unfulfilled prophecies concerning both the first and second comings of the Messiah being mixed in together. It’s easy for us to separate them, since prophecies concerning the first coming have already been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ. But for them, it was difficult to distinguish the difference. Likewise, as we actually get close to the end, we perhaps may be able to see with more clarity how these still unfulfilled prophecies will be fulfilled. Nevertheless, we need to learn a lesson of humility from those first century Jews. God is liable to have a few surprises ahead for us as to how all of these prophecies will be fulfilled.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a number of interpretations within the Christian tradition concerning how the end times will play out, and so I'd like to give you just a brief overview of the main ones and how they handle such concepts as the "rapture," "tribulation," "millennium," and second coming of Christ. The term "millennium" refers to the description found in Rev. 20 about the "1000-year reign of Christ" prior to the final judgment. Needless to say, some think it is merely a symbolic number and not a literal 1000 years. This view is called "amillennialism," and together with another view called "postmillennialism," which does view this periods as a literal 1000 years, it understands this period as culminating in the second coming of Christ and final judgment over all mankind.
The "Left Behind" series and other such portrayals, however, all hold to another position, which is termed "premillennialism," which holds that the Second Coming of Christ precedes the millennium, and even within this view, there are 3 basic varieties as it relates to the "rapture" and "tribulation." There is the "pretribulation rapture," the "midtribulation rapture" and the "posttribulation rapture." Sounds pretty complicated, huh! The most common is "pretribulation premillennialism," which many people find attractive. This is because it would mean that when this terrible tribulation period begins, true Christians will be taken out of it and won't have to suffer along with the rest of humanity. In other words, it’s a kind of escapism.
Needless to say, I don't personally hold to that view, and one reason I'm suspicious of it is that prior to the mid 19th century, nobody had ever interpreted the Bible that way. If it is something plainly taught in the Scriptures, why was it not noticed for the first 1800 years of church history? That doesn't mean that it is necessarily false, of course, but anytime someone purports to come up with some new theological twist, we should be a bit skeptical and at least test it out against the entire counsel of Scripture.
I obviously don't have time to go into any detail on these various positions, and, in fact, I don't really know which is actually correct. None of them are without problems. When asked which position I hold to, I reply tongue-in-cheek that I prefer the position of "panmillennialism." That's the view that "in the end, it's all going to pan out." And while that is meant as a bit of a joke, there is actually some good theology there. We do need to keep things in perspective, primary of which is that in the end, God is going to triumph over the forces of evil. God has only given us the broad outline of things. Christ is coming again, when the time is right, and this time it will be in power and glory. Evil will be conquered and an eternal existence in a whole new realm will usher in a world in which there will be no more suffering or evil. We know who wins, and we can have confidence that we're on the winning side. Thus, I feel it is important to study these prophecies of the future and what their message is for us today — not to try to figure out all of the who's, when's and how's, but in order to kindle in our hearts the hope of his coming and the courage to live and serve the Lord today and in the days to come. As Paul said in the continuation of that passage in Thessalonians we read earlier, "Therefore encourage one another with these words."
As I was thinking about this sermon, I happened to hear an old song being played on a TV program. “Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera sera. What will be, will be.” I got to thinking, “Maybe we should have a ‘que sera eschatology.’” And if you’re not familiar with theological terms, “eschatology” is the study of last things. “The future’s not ours to see” — at least in the details, anyway! Of course, from the message of the Bible, we can have the “big picture.” But let’s leave the details up to God and concentrate on what is really important for our lives today. “What will be, will be.”
The desire to know all about the future and to find all the keys to decoding the exact meanings of Scriptures, such as we find in Revelation, is natural. But I'm afraid that often misses the real purpose of these writings. The title I chose for this message is in the form of a question —"Last Things? Or Things That Last?" — and I think by now you know which one I think should be emphasized. "Last things," that is, the study of end-time prophecies, should be something we familiarize ourselves with, but it is the "things that last" that are really important. As someone once said, "We should live our lives daily as though Christ is coming back today, but we should plan for the future as though his coming is still far in the future." Christ's return is our great hope, and we are to live our lives in that hope. But we have also been given the responsibility to take care of God's creation and to do the Lord's work in whatever situation we find ourselves. Thus, any teaching that in effect says that since the end is coming very soon it's no use trying to solve any of the world's problems cannot be pleasing to God.
Therefore, let us hold fast to that great hope that God will one day intervene dramatically in human history to create "a New Heaven and a New Earth," wiping away all evil and suffering. And while we patiently wait for that great day, let us live responsible lives striving to do what is right and good as we encourage each other with the hope of his coming. It is those relationships with our God and with our brothers and sisters in this world that are "the things that last." May God bless you in your efforts to build up those relationships!
In closing, I'd like for us to sing a hymn that takes its theme from Revelation and talks about the great hope we have to look forward to when we do meet our Lord. "Crown Him with Many Crowns."