Monday, July 1, 2013

The Kingdom of God - Part 3

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot - they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all - so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed (Luke 17: 26-30).

As previously discussed, Jesus had told his hearers that the Kingdom of God was in their midst, referring to his rule as Messiah. Here Jesus explains how the physical manifestation of the Kingdom of God will come about at the end, on Judgment Day. On that day this present, corrupt world will pass away and Jesus will make everything new, bringing into existence a new heaven and a new earth[1]. The character of the kingdom's physical manifestation will not be gradual, and it will not involve rehabilitation of the kingdoms of this present world. Things are not going to get better, and better, and better in this world until, at some point, the Christian religion reigns over all the earth and we enter the golden age of the Millennium, as some Christian theologians teach[2]. The physical arrival of Christ and God's Kingdom will bring with it utter destruction as evidenced by the examples Jesus gives. The great flood at the time of Noah destroyed all life on earth, except that which was preserved by God in the Ark. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was absolute, with no trace of the cities or survivors remaining - again, with the exception of those whom God preserved out of his grace. God's kingdom will come quickly, but with plenty of warning, just as the flood came upon the world of Noah, just as the fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah in the time of Lot. Kretzmann writes about how the people during the time of Noah and Lot were stubborn and, despite being given plenty of time and warning about the impending judgment, refused to repent:

The distinguishing characteristic of the time just preceding the final advent of Christ, the Son of Man, will be an indifferent carelessness. The days of Noah are an example. The warning had gone out through the mouth of this preacher of righteousness that the people should repent of their foolish ways. But they gave so little heed to the warning that they continued in all the manner of complete abandon in the desires of the flesh up to the very hour of the cataclysm: they ate, they drank, they married, they were married; men and women, the entire generation, past all hope of redemption. And then, with the sudden frightfulness that has characterized the judgments of God in similar situations, came the day on which Noah entered into the ark; then came the Flood and destroyed them all. And the days of Lot are another example of the utter, blind heedlessness of the people. In Sodom and Gomorrah the inhabitants continued in the delights of the flesh as well as in all their lines of business, work, and endeavor: they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, up to the very hour of the catastrophe that overwhelmed the cities, when it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed them all. The people of the last times will not have learned their lesson from the previous calamities; when the Son of Man will be revealed before their astonished, horrified eyes on the last day, He will find them as unprepared for His coming, as deeply steeped in the foolishness of the Noachites and of the Sodomites as any generation ever was (Kretzmann, 1921).

On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot's wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:31-37).

In this passage some see evidence of the rapture, the spiriting away to heaven of all Christians from the earth either before, during, or after a period known to millennialist Christians as the Tribulation. Images of the Left Behind book series by Tim LeHaye are called to mind; images of driverless cars abandoned in the roadway and pilotless airplanes auguring into mountainsides, their Christian drivers and pilots gone on to heavenly glory without any hint or warning. This is not, however, the thing to which Jesus is referring. Dispensationalism and the doctrine of the rapture are not borne out by scripture. It is of relatively new invention, in fact, being only developed over the last 200 years or so[3]. Instead, Jesus is describing the suddenness of his coming on the Day of Judgment, and the futility of all things temporal when it comes to redemption. Just as it was too late for anyone in Noah's time to escape God's judgment by the waters of the flood after he had shut Noah, his family, and the animals inside the ark, so too will it be too late to repent when Christ appears. Likewise, Lot's wife is turned to a pillar of salt when she hesitates to trust in God's redemption and turns back to see the fate of her former home (Engelbrecht, 2009). Regarding this passage, Kretzmann writes the following:

The suddenness of the breaking of Judgment Day will take every person where he just happens to be at that time. A man will be up on the flat roof of the house. He will neither have, nor should he attempt to take, time to go down and get any instruments or possessions. A man will be out in the field. He also should not turn back behind him for anything of this world's goods that he may have valued. As when an army of the enemy makes a sudden successful assault and only precipitate flight will save the inhabitants, he that turns back for money, clothes, or other goods is lost, so the person whose mind is still attached to the things of this world on the last day is beyond hope of salvation. The example of Lot's wife should be before the minds of the believers at all times. Had she not turned behind her to satisfy her curiosity, she might have saved her soul with the rest. Her hesitation proved her destruction. Cp. Matt. 16, 25; Mark 8, 35; Luke 9, 24. He that in the last emergency will have nothing in mind but the saving of this earthly life and the goods that are necessary for its preservation, will lose forever the true life in and with God; but he whose desires are free from all love for this world and what it has to offer, that has denied himself and all that this life might have given him, he will save his life, the life in God, his soul and its eternal salvation (Kretzmann, 1921).

The Disciples, needless to say, are stunned at Jesus' teaching. As discussed earlier, they still seem to expect the same type of political Messiah as the Pharisees. They ask the question, "Where, Lord?" Jesus, as he was wont to do, answers them in enigmatic fashion. His answer is unmistakably ominous: "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." This may seem like a sarcastic non-answer to the disciples' question but it does give us an idea what the world will be like by the time of the end - worthless and unclean, like a dead and rotting corpse. Kretzmann explains Jesus' words this way:

In awe and fear, they [the disciples] barely breathe the question: Where, Lord? Where will all this happen? And He told them: Where the dead body is, there will the eagles gather themselves together. The world, especially in the last days, will be, and to-day is, like a decaying carcass, whose stench rises up into the heavens. And judgment and destruction will come upon the entire spiritually dead and morally rotten human race. It is a strong, but fitting figure, revealing the world as it is, in its true condition, without a redeeming feature to recommend it in the sight of God (Kretzmann, 1921).

God is purposely ambiguous when describing for us the signs of Christ's second coming and the signs of the end of this present age. He leaves no doubt, however, that Christ will come a second time to establish the eternal kingdom. If we human beings could calculate the time of Christ's return, we would live as reprobates until the last possible moment before repenting of our sin, such is the depravity of our sinful human nature (Engelbrecht, 2009). St. Paul, in fact, warns us against living in such a way. He tells us that we should put on the new self and live as the new creation of Christ that we are, not in order to earn God’s favor, but as a response to receiving God’s undeserved mercy through Christ Jesus. St. Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Romans 12:1-2; Colossians 3:1-8).

To delay repentance, to turn away from God and live according to the desires of our sinful flesh, to disregard the law's revelation of our sinful state and the call of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel is to run the risk of ending up as those who ignored God in the days of Noah and Lot.

The message of Christ's teaching here is unmistakable: today is the day of salvation and repentance must not be delayed[4]. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ, sin, death, and Satan have been defeated (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation, 1986). Christ died as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world[5]; those who repent of their sin and trust in Christ have the forgiveness and eternal life he won for mankind by Christ on the cross. Furthermore, we who trust in Christ must not live as if his return is far off and we are secure among our earthly possessions, because we are not. Our wealth, possessions, our status among men and our good works will be of no avail to us when Christ returns on the Day of the Lord to judge mankind and establish his kingdom physically. The only way we can hope to stand before God on that Day of Judgment is if we have been clothed with the robe of Christ's righteousness won for us by his death and resurrection, given to us freely, by his grace[6].

Works Cited

Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. (1989). The "End Times" - A Study on Eschatology and Millennialism. St. Louis: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

Engelbrecht, R. E. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible: New Testament (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. (1986). Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Revelation 21:1-8

[2] While there are numerous variations in millennialist teaching today, a fourfold categorization has been widely accepted: 1) dispensational premillennialism; (2) historic premillennialism; (3) postmillennialism, and (4) amillennialism. Of the first three categories, all of which hold to a millennium or utopian age on this earth, the most commonly held view is dispensational premillennialism…The less common postmillennial view places Christ’s second advent after (post) the millennium. Only then will the rapture, the general resurrection, the general judgment , and the eternal states occur. The millennium is not understood to involve a visible reign of Christ in the form of an earthly monarchy, nor is the millennial period to be taken literally as necessarily 1000 years long. In these respects postmillennialism corresponds closely to the amillennialist position (Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, 1989).

[3] Dispensational premillennialism, or simply dispensationalism, is a theological system having its origin among the Plymouth Brethren in Ireland and England in the early 19th century. This system’s originator was John Nelson Darby (1800-82), one of the chief founders of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Dispensationalism arose as a reaction against the Church of England and the widely held view of postmillennialism (Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, 1989).

[4] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:15; 5:19; 5:21; Hebrews 2:17.

[6] Isaiah 61:9-11; Revelation 21:1-2