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And then comes the end

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Another look at Revelation

The closeness of the end

The New Testament writers quite obviously held that the coming of the Lord was near…. If a preacher today [in 1980] should announce as his topic: “Behold, I Come Quickly,” or “The Coming of the Lord Is Near,” he would, more likely than not, want his audience to understand that the Rapture will take place soon.

What he may have overlooked, however, is that these words were spoken in the first century, and therefore must have the same meaning in the 20th century as they did in the first….

One way of reading the texts that speak of the imminence of Christ’s return is to say that when God’s hour strikes then things will happen quickly. Or one could read the word “quickly” in the sense of “certainly.”

Moreover, the word “quickly” may suggest that God is in control of history. The suddenness with which God acts is a sign of his power. “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1). “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (Luke 2:13); “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2). Nothing stops God from acting when the time has come and the final hour has struck.

While we do not want to discount these ways of reading those passages which speak of imminence, it appears to us that a better approach is to understand them as expressing the primitive church’s understanding of time. In the presence of eternity, time shrinks together; the perspective is abbreviated. A thousand years are viewed as a day (2 Peter 3:8). To say that the time is near is to summon us to the outermost ramparts of time, to the point where time is fulfilled, to the moment when history ends and the new morning begins to shine, which is no longer of this world.

The church always lives in the twilight just before the dawn of the eternal kingdom. Robert Mounce writes: “The tension of imminence is endemic to that span of redemptive history lying between the cross and the parousia [the second coming].” If imminence is understood in this way, then the message of the New Testament remains relevant for all generations. Then believers always live on the borderland between this age and the age to come….

Entirely fanciful is the view that the last days began in 1948, and since a generation is 30 or 40 years long, one can predict with some degree of accuracy the date of our Lord’s return. People who do such calculations should not stop reading at Mark 13:30, but read on to verses 32 and 33 in which Jesus says, “But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”

The “great” Tribulation

A very popular view of the tribulation is that before the Antichrist emerges, God will rapture his church and spare his people the severe testing at the end of this age. This idea was first suggested by John Darby (ca. 1838). In the view of this writer, such an interpretation is hard to defend from the New Testament passages that speak of tribulation. The one text that promises deliverance from the great tribulation (Revelation 3:10) is simply an assurance to the believers that they will not succumb in the judgments of history that befall “the earthdwellers,” that is, the wicked.
The teaching that the church will be raptured before the End is rooted not in the New Testament, but is inferred from Daniel 9:24–27. It is argued that God’s plan with Israel was interrupted by the church age and that after the church is removed, Daniel’s 70th week (seven years) will follow – a period of great tribulation under the rule of Antichrist. Chapters 4–18 of the Revelation are then said to describe the terrors of this seven-year period of tribulation.

But it seems strange that a major portion of a New Testament book should have nothing to say to the life of the readers to whom John addressed it, or for that matter to all the saints through the ages who have found comfort in this book. It may be added, that it is always precarious to interpret the New Testament in the light of the Old. The apostles teach us to interpret the Old in the light of the New.

Also, it seems difficult to argue for a pre-tribulation rapture when 2 Thessalonians 2:3 explains that the Lord will not come “unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed,” whom Christ will liquidate at his Parousia (v. 8)….

We are ill-advised to hold out the hope to the church that, before the night of this age gets too dark, Christ will take us away from the trials of life. Missionary David Adeney, who has spent half a lifetime in Asia, observes that when tribulation came upon the church in communist China, it was caught off guard. This was the case because missionaries in China had taught that the church would be spared the tribulation. Any interpretation of biblical prophecy that exempts the church from persecution or tribulation should be rejected.

Suffering has been a mark of the true church throughout the ages. “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Americans sometimes wonder whether there is much genuine Christianity left in countries under totalitarian regimes. Conversely, Christians who have to suffer for their faith in these lands, wonder at times whether there is much genuine Christianity in the free West, since there is so little suffering. George Ladd writes, “To be sure, we experience little hostility in America, indeed, in many cities, it is good for one’s business and social standing to be a member of a certain church. This has lulled many Christians to sleep in the feeling that God would not possibly allow his people to suffer such a devastating persecution.”

The Visio Dei

It has been the hope of God’s people throughout the ages that they might have the privilege of seeing God…. “No one has ever seen God,” says John, but “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). And when Philip later asked, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” Jesus explains, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). In the Person of Jesus those who were witnesses of his incarnation could see what God was like. But it was God incarnate, God in the flesh. It was not yet the beatific vision for which God’ s people yearn.

There is a seeing of God that is possible to the eyes of faith during our earthly sojourn. Paul prays for his readers that the eyes of their hearts may be opened (Ephesians 1:18). Nevertheless, as long as we are in this earthly body we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Peter explains that even though we do not yet see him we can rejoice (1 Peter 1:8). However, we see only by means of “a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), not clearly, not yet face-to-face….

In the last chapter of the Bible, the Seer of Patmos wraps up his great book of comfort with the assurance: “They shall see his face” (Revelation 22:4). All the bliss of eternity seems to be condensed in that phrase. What we see dimly in this life with the eyes of faith will be fully manifest when we see “face facing face” (prosopon pros prosopon, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

A.M. Hunter observes:

To behold the God before whom angels veil their faces, the God who created us and, in Christ, redeemed us, who so loved his lost and wandering children that he came right down among us to show us what he is like and then died on a Cross to save us from our sins and make us heirs of life eternal, and, beholding him, to behold all things in him and in the light of his redemption, this truly “were a well spent journey, Though seven deaths lay between.”

–David Ewert was a Mennonite Brethren teacher, preacher, and writer. He died in April 2010. These excerpts were taken from And Then Comes the End (Herald Press, 1980).

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