Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Judgment of This World

Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out (John 12:31).

This verse is compact, but quite significant to God’s salvation plan. When viewed in light of the rest of the New Testament, it is intensely comforting to Christians. Jesus tells the people and his disciples that Satan, the ruler of this world, the power of the air[1], will shortly be condemned by Jesus’ death on the cross. Christ’s death may have appeared to earthly eyes, blinded by the darkness of sin, as Satan’s victory; it was, in fact, Satan’s overthrow (Engelbrecht). This brings the discussion to an interesting place. This judgment of Satan pronounced by God the Father through the work of His Son should give the Christian hope, comfort, and peace. It also sheds light on one of the most analyzed and debated passages in the entirety of Holy Scripture – Revelation 20: 1-3:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

According to the four gospels[2] Satan was bound, conquered, judged, and cast out as a result of Jesus’ ministry. If this is the case, then the 1,000 years described by St. John in Revelation 20 begins with the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry – his death, resurrection and ascension (Brighton). Lutherans believe that Jesus has bound Satan and severely limited his power in this Millennium, the New Testament period, sometimes referred to as the “church age”, and that this is what he is speaking of in John 12:31.

Other churches teach that the Millennium will be a literal 1,000 year period when Jesus will set up his kingdom on earth. Along with this view, it is also taught that, at some point before the Millennium, Jesus will return secretly to resurrect or rapture all true Christians. There will then be a seven year “tribulation”, where Christians are persecuted. The battle of Armageddon will take place, culminating in Christ’s visible return to bind Satan, and the beginning of the Millennium. Following the Millennium, Satan will be released from the pit. The wicked will be resurrected for final judgment, Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, and the new heavens and the new earth will enter into eternity with Christ (Millennialism, 2011) (Engelbrecht, 2009).

Lutheran theology concerning the End Times is "A-Millenialist", because we do not teach that the 1,000 years described in Revelation 20 is a literal perfect 1,000 year long kingdom on earth. We also reject a “Left Behind” style rapture. Here's how we get there...

For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers (Psalm 90: 4-6).

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Peter 3: 8-10).

These two passages also illustrate something which I think is important to consider when dealing with this issue. These are the only two references in Scripture (that I could find) that refer to "1,000 years" as Revelation does in chapter 20. These passages use the phrase symbolically, speaking of the timelessness of God (Brighton). We understand that grass doesn't grow in one morning, only to wither that same evening. We understand that death, though referred to as a "sleep", is something quite different. It is logical to assume that in Psalm 90, the psalmist is using this long, perfect (10 X 10) number to show that God does not look at time the same way humans do. St. Peter, quoting this passage, uses it in the same way. If we are willing to accept this rather conservative interpretation for the usage of this phrase in a book of poetry (Psalms), as well as in a document of correspondence (2 Peter), would it not also be logical to apply this to an book consisting, almost entirely, of apocalyptic visions? Of course, I also understand that God isn't the biggest fan of human logic, so I'm open to being flexible.

Lastly, concerning the Rapture, I just don't see evidence for it. The texts used to provide a basis for this teaching, however, seem only to make sense if you believe in the Millennial Kingdom. I guess that the most important one that has been cited to me is St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4: 16-17).

Lutheran theology presents this passage, from St. Paul’s context, as a glimpse of the Last Day/Final Judgment. It certainly will not be something that happens secretly. Everybody will know what's going on when they hear the "loud command" and the "trumpet call of God". I have always sort of associated this passage with my favorite verses in Scripture, from 1 Corinthians:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15: 51-52).

Again, St. Paul mentions the trumpet call that will herald the resurrection. Jesus mentions it as well in Matthew 24:31, after describing the increasing turmoil and tribulation in the world, as well as the "abomination that causes desolation" - the Antichrist. In this discourse, far from describing how believers will be removed from the world, Jesus tells us:

Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come (Matthew 24: 9-14).

In the same vein as Our Lord, St. Peter describes an end that comes after increasing trials in the world. He likens it to the Flood:

Knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3: 3, 5-7).

Peter describes the end, and he says it's going to be like the time of the Flood, only with fire instead of water. God set a time for the flood, he warned Noah, and Noah built the Ark. There was no break before the rain started for people to be converted.

He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels (Matthew 13: 37-39).

Jesus said the "wheat" and the "weeds" are to grow up together until the harvest (Matthew 13:30), and Jesus defined the timing of the harvest as the end of the age (Matthew 13: 39, 49). He not only presented the parable, but He explained it. It seems as though, if there were to be a removal of Christians from the earth, either pre or post-tribulation, Jesus would have adapted his parable accordingly.

Finally, to bring things back to the apocalyptic writings we began with, St. Peter has this to say:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Peter 3:10).

Again, whether or not you believe Revelation 20 literally makes a big difference in what you get out of 2 Peter 3. Bottom line, Peter uses apocalyptic language, the figure of the thief and the dramatic description of the earth's demise, to illustrate that the end is going to come suddenly and without warning to us, other than the general warning that there is increasing turmoil in the world. He is trying to describe the indescribable, and he uses symbolism to do it.

And, whether or not we agree on this peripheral theology, as Christians we should take Peter's advice:

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace…You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen (2 Peter 3: 14, 17-18).

To discuss and debate the teachings of Holy Scripture is good, when done in love, without malice and anger. What binds the body of Christ, that is, the church, is not when Christ is coming, or how, but that he is coming. And that, if one is to appear before God to give account, as every man will, he needs to acknowledge his sin, repent, and cling to Christ before that day, if he hopes to stand.[3] This is what we can all agree on concerning the end: Christ will return visibly and with great glory on the Last Day.[4] Christ will return to judge the world.[5] Christ will return on a specific day known only to God alone.[6] Before Christ returns, there will be increasing turmoil and distress for the church and the world.[7] The return of Christ is a source of hope and joy for the Christian.[8]

On May 12, 1865, over one month after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the battle of Palmito Ranch was fought in Texas. The battle was essentially pointless, as it was clear with Lee’s surrender that Confederate defeat was unavoidable. However, when the Union Army attacked Confederate forces inside Ft. Brown, not far from Brownsville, the fight was on. Though the Confederacy’s condition was terminal these Confederates repulsed the Union attack. They won the day despite the fact that the war was lost (Battle of Palmito Ranch, 2011).

When we face evil in this world, we must understand that Satan and the forces of darkness may win the battle that day, as they seemed to on Good Friday. However, just like the Confederacy in May 1865, Satan’s defeat is a foregone conclusion. Therefore, because of Jesus, Christians can live victoriously in this sinful, hostile world, even when it looks as though Satan has won the day. Jesus Christ has promised us final victory.

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Bibliography


Battle of Palmito Ranch. (2011, February 27). Retrieved February 27, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Palmito_Ranch

Brighton, L. A. Concordia Popular Commentary: Revelation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible - English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Millennialism. (2011, February 27). Retrieved February 27, 2011, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennialism



End Notes

[1] Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 9:11


[2] Mat. 12:29; Mk. 3:27; Lk. 11:21


[3] 2 Cor. 5:10


[4] Matt. 24:27; Lk. 21:27; Acts 1:11; 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 1:7


[5] Matt. 25:31-32; John 12:48; John 18:36; 2 Cor. 5:10


[6] Matt. 24:44; Mark 13:32; Acts 17:31


[7] Matt. 24:7, 22; 1 Tim. 4:1


[8] Lk. 21:28; Heb. 9:28; Titus 2:13; Rev. 22:20