By Gary Stearman
Part 2 republished with the author’s written permission
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Given the socio-economic developments of the contemporary world, it is no wonder that many Christians think the Rapture is close. But remember the words of the preacher at the beginning of this article. He would admonish us for getting excited about the nearness of Christ's appearance. He, and others like him, would tell us that we are misdirecting our Christian focus, and that we are so bent on being rescued from this evil world that our Christian mission and growth are compromised.
According to him, it is the Christian's duty to work for a better world, extending the Gospel to the ends of the earth and bringing godly men to power. That is classic postmillennialism, which says that things will get better and better. And, certainly, there is nothing wrong with emphasizing evangelism.
But stated in another way, his view leads to Laodiceanism, which was prophesied as the condition that would preveil at the end of the Church Age. It is focused upon selfaggrandizement and self-improvement … of expanding its power with the idea of creating a better world. It is not anticipating Christ's imminent return.
Every Christian who reads the Bible in a historical, grammatical and literal way has concluded that what lies ahead is not the expansion of peace. Instead, we foresee the red horse of war. Furthermore, it is led by a powerful figure … a Russian leader called "Gog." Though his personal identity is obscured, he is a powerful and rapacious figure, given to evil and bent upon the destruction of a latter-day Israel that looks remarkably similar to the Holy Land we see today.
Have You Watched the Russians Lately?
For centuries, even Jewish commentators have interpreted the Bible in this way, as can be seen in the following quote, an annotation to Ezekiel, chapter 38, in the Artscroll Tanach Series, Yechezkel (Ezekiel):
Among the many mysteries which surround the advent of the Messianic era, the War of Gog and Magog, plays a major role. … We shall not attempt an exact delineation of the events which are to happen. Rather we will offer a very general outline and a short analysis of the meaning of these wars. Dark days are to precede the coming of the Messiah. Sanhedrin 96b quotes a number of our Sages who prayed that they might be spared the terrible experience of the time. Rashi (Sanhedrin 98b) explains the very term, the pain of the pre-Messianic period, as describing the fear, which these armies will inspire.
Who is this Gog around whom history's climactic events are to occur? Which is the land of Magog? Who are Gog's allies? Above all, what motive will he have to wage the war, which will prove to be his undoing? Why does the nation of Israel, dwelling peacefully within its boundaries, inspire the hatred, which drags Gog inexorably to his doom? "In attempting some answers to these questions, we will resist the temptation to relate the prophecies concerning Gog and Magog to contemporary events [pp. 577, 578].
In this commentary, the editors then go on to demonstrate that Gog is, in fact, a Russian leader who will command the hordes of Russian troops and their allies in the latterday attack. Though apologetic for hinting at this conclusion, Jewish sages are forced to the position that a dark period lies ahead, and that it involves a Russian invasion of Israel!
We can already see Russia building a major presence in the Middle East. And we also remember the year 1982, when Israel moved northward against territory in Lebanon, to defeat Syrian and "Palestinian" forces gathering for an invasion there. In the process, they uncovered enormous caches of Russian weapons stored there in secret underground depots. That was 26 years ago, and now, the Russians are returning in force, arming the same aggressors, this time with even more (and more highly developed) weapons.
And some church leaders would have us believe that the world is getting better and better! They have simply failed to avail themselves of the clear prophetic warnings. A war in the Middle East is coming. Ezekiel the prophet describes it well. What are we to do, prepare to go through it … prepare for nuclear war? It is after all a war that reaches all the way to the "isles," from the Hebrew iyyim, which is generally translated "continents." That, of course, would include Europe and the countries of the Western Hemisphere – including the Americas – making Ezekiel’s battle a global catastrophe:
And I will send a fire on Magog, and among them that dwell carelessly in the isles: and they shall know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 39:6).
It is generally held that "Magog" is the territory of greater Russia. If a fiery barrage from the heavens falls on Russia and various unnamed continents, we can only conclude that chaos, not calm, lies ahead. Are we going to go through this war? Or to ask the more general question, is Jesus' coming to be of a sudden and cataclysmic nature, or as part of a gradual improvement of society through the influence of Christianity? In the treatment of this question lies the key to why there is such disparity in the world of eschatology.
Pessimism Vs. Optimism
In the above scenario, we have an obvious reason why the pretribulational view of prophecy is so often rejected: It paints a "pessimistic" picture of the future. Namely, it states that in order for the twelve tribes to inherit the promised Millennial Kingdom, there must first be a series of global wars, the kingdom of the antichrist and a demonic invasion of human society.
Those who view the church as ascendant simply cannot abide the thought that a great proportion of its members will one day – without warning – simply disappear. More than that, they reject the idea that a cataclysmic series of events lurks in the nottoo- distant future. After all, their position "optimistically" foresees the church taking charge and steadily bringing the world into conformity with biblical teaching. And those who disappear would, by definition, be the most exemplary members of the organised church. To them, it is unthinkable that the church would lose its most pious leaders in this way.
Some postmillennial believers are liberal in their theology, and visualize a world in which utopian socialist "social gospel" teaching converts the world into a blissful unity. They are now quite excited at the "progress" that is being made in Europe and the Americas. Others are conservative, and believe that the application of biblical law will transform the world into a place where peace reigns and the Messiah returns.
Both groups take solace from their belief that a golden age lies ahead, at the end of which, Christ returns to accept the crown and mantle of authority. Both also believe that the Messiah's kingdom was established at His first coming, and that the church has assumed the identity of spiritual Israel, with all attendant rights, inheritances and real estate.
This position is commonly known as "Postmillennialism." It commonly holds that the development of a "kingdom" is a spiritual affair, not an earthly one. It focuses upon the spiritual development of its people, leaving details of the earthly kingdom to be worked out in the future. And no wonder, since it is based upon the spiritual interpretation of past events, viewing the kingdom as historical, rather than futuristic. Kingdom Scripture must be interpreted [in a particular way] to support this view.
Again, it views the history that has elapsed since Christ's first coming as progressively moving toward perfection in a steady and predictable fashion. It expects continued human progress and interprets God's prophetic blessings upon a future Israel as applying to the church, instead. Under this system, the consistent literal interpretation of the Bible is discarded in favour of various novel interpretations that twist latter-day Israel into a form that makes it depict the growing church.
Most of all, the book of Revelation as a futuristic document is virtually overthrown. Under this system, John's beautiful and intricate prophecy is reduced to a chronicle of the past. The "preterist" scheme interprets Revelation as the description of Israel's defeat at the hands of the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus in the invasion of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. In order to make this interpretation work, a literal reading of the text is abandoned in favour of symbolic analysis. The seals, trumpets and vials become phases of the invasion, and the numerous disruptions of natural law are reduced to the smoke of battle obscuring the sun and moon. Objective descriptions become dramatic metaphors.
Worst of all, the expectation of a future judgment by the Lord is obliterated.
From Clement to Augustine, An Ancient Phenomenon
This loss of prophetic expectancy has happened before. The first time we see it is long ago, just after the death of John the apostle.
Before this, Paul's epistles reveal that he regarded Christ's return as an imminent event, a "blessed hope." But he died without seeing its realisation. To make matters worse, from his death in A.D. 67 to the passing of John at the end of the first century, Christian persecution became increasingly brutal. All who had read Paul's epistles no doubt expected Jesus to come and save them from the ongoing horrors of Roman persecution. When this didn't happen, their morale began to slip. At the end of the first century, they were beginning to give up hope.
We have evidence of this in an [apocryphal] Epistle to the Corinthians, [allegedly] written by Clement of Rome, a fellow-worker of Paul. He died in A.D. 100, but shortly before that, in A.D. 97, his epistle was written to encourage those who wondered why Christ still hadn't come for the church. Its twentythird chapter is headed, "Be Humble, And Believe That Christ Will Come Again."
The context makes it obvious that Clement had observed the flagging faith of the Corinthian Christians (and no doubt, of Christians in general). His words of exhortation reveal a church that had given up its watch, and was then waiting for the blissful rescue of natural death. Forty years had passed since Paul's letters to the Corinthians. The Empire's anti-Christian policies had grown ever more heavyhanded. As Clement writes, he is obviously concerned about a loss of faith in those whose fathers were the stalwarts of the early church:
The all-merciful and beneficent Father has … compassion … towards those that fear Him, and kindly and lovingly bestows His favours upon those who come to Him with a simple mind. Therefore let us not be double-minded; neither let our soul be lifted up on account of His exceedingly great and glorious gifts. Far from us be that which is written, 'Wretched are they who are of a double mind, and of a doubting heart; who say, These things we have heard even in the times of our fathers; but, behold, we have grown old, and none of them has happened to us.' you foolish ones! Compare yourselves to a tree. Take [for instance] the vine. First of all, it sheds its leaves, then it buds, next it puts forth leaves, and then it flowers; after that comes the sour grape, and then follows the ripened fruit. You perceive how in a little time the fruit of a tree comes to maturity. Of a truth, soon and suddenly shall His will be accomplished, as the Scripture also bears witness, saying, 'Speedily will He come, and will not tarry;' and, 'The Lord shall suddenly come to His temple, even the Holy One, for whom you look.'
Clement's expression reflects early Christianity's turn away from watchfulness. Sadly, as time passed, the faithful began to slip further and further away from the idea of the Lord's imminent return. Iranaeus, Bishop of Lyons at the end of the second century, wrote his landmark "Against Heresies," about A.D. 188. It is a dedicated argument against the Gnostic spiritualisation of Christian doctrine. In general, the Gnostics believed in a spiritual (not physical) Jesus, and a spiritual kingdom. Following the lead of the Apostles, he stressed the physical reality, not only of Christ, but of the Kingdom Age in general.
Writing nearly a century after Clement, he no longer stresses the soon return of Christ. Now, his exhortation is simply to believe that there will someday be a real, fleshly resurrection. His thirty-sixth chapter is headed, "Men Shall Be Actually Raised: The World Shall Not Be Annihilated; But There Shall Be Various Mansions For The Saints, According To The Rank Allotted To Each Individual. All Things Shall Be Subject To God The Father, And So Shall He Be All In All."
Iranaeus preaches the reality of the resurrection… some day. His encouragement contains no hint of immediacy or urgency. Rather, it stresses that one should work to obtain a higher position within the final disposition of Christ's reign. Certainly, he teaches a physical resurrection, but his conception of the kingdom is no longer the realm of the twelve tribes. A works-ordered worthiness is his key to the Kingdom:
But when this [present] fashion [of things] passes away, and man has been renewed, and flourishes in an incorruptible state, so as to preclude the possibility of becoming old, [then] there shall be the new heaven and the new earth, in which the new man shall remain [continually], always holding fresh converse with God. And since these things shall ever continue without end, Isaiah declares, 'For as the new heavens and the new earth which I make, continue in my sight, says the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain.' And as the presbyters say, Then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour shall be seen according as they who see Him shall be worthy.
Irenaeus wants his readers to know that there will be a resurrection, but its value has nothing at all to do with unmerited favour; that all who believe will be raised in a moment to glorification in the Kingdom of Heaven. He takes the idea of the "blessed hope," and turns it into a distant uncertainty:
And this is the couch on which the guests shall recline, having been invited to the wedding. The presbyters, the disciples of the apostles, affirm that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; also that they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father, and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the apostle, “For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” For in the times of the kingdom, the righteous man who is upon the earth shall then forget to die. "But when He says, All things shall be subdued to Him, it is manifest that He is excepted who did put all things under Him. And when all things shall be subdued to Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all."
Here, in the late second century, Irenaeus is beginning to blur the distinction between the Resurrection at the Rapture, and the coming of the earthly Kingdom age, or Millennium. A little over two centuries later, in the early fifth century, Augustine had totally spiritualised the Millennial Kingdom of Revelation 20 as Christ's current reign with the saints of the Church Age. In the following passage, which completes Irenaeus' dissertation above, one can easily see that the emphasis upon Christ's imminent return has disappeared:
John, therefore, did distinctly foresee the first "resurrection of the just," and the inheritance in the kingdom of the earth; and what the prophets have prophesied concerning it harmonize [with his vision]. For the Lord also taught these things, when He promised that He would have the mixed cup new with His disciples in the kingdom. The apostle, too, has confessed that the creation shall be free from the bondage of corruption, [so as to pass] into the liberty of the sons of God.
Watching for Christ's return with balanced enthusiasm takes effort, study and prayer. It is easy to get discouraged and turn away to a utopian Christianity that emphasizes the growth of the institutional church.
The Subtle Shift – but some persevere
In every age, there is always a remnant of those who stringently follow apostolic doctrine. They study the lives of the Apostles, the history of their work and the literal, grammatical truth of their writings. They read the Gospels and Epistles wordfor- word, as directly received, written only yesterday, and to be taken at face value today. They hold to the simple promise of the imminent Rapture. As Paul wrote:
For what is our hope or joy or crown of rejoicing? Are not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thes 2:19, 20).
In the same epistle, he wrote,
Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thes 4:17,18).
There is nothing so comforting as the promise that the body of Christ will be taken out of the world before it falls under the Lord's judgment. A bit later in the same epistle, Paul makes this clear:
But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 5:8,9).
The "salvation" to which Paul alludes is not the initial salvation experience. In context, it is the promise of Rapture, saving us from the wrath to come. Probably the best-known verse that carries this idea is found in Paul's epistle to Titus:
Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present age; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:12,13).
As we have seen, toward the end of the first century, there was a subtle shift away from the moment-by-moment expectation of Christ's return. This change followed the growing wave of discouragement that the promise had not been fulfilled. Even worse, the fifteen-year reign of the Emperor Domitian made cruelty a byword of the Empire. Coinciding with the last years of John the apostle, Christians began to suffer martyrdom more than ever before. Hope was beginning to be lost.
Under the circumstances, it is quite understandable that the priority of the Christian faith would shift to sheer survival. One's prayer life and the solace of a worshipful fellowship would become the highest possible priorities. This, combined with the later Romanisation of the faith under Augustine's doctrine that the Millennium was already taking place, put the sound doctrines of prophecy on the back burner … for almost fifteen centuries!
These Are the End Times
In the days of John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, it began to be recognised that Israel would return to the Promised Land. Premillennial doctrine was awakened once again. Through two World Wars, Jewish refugees were miraculously united in a state that had not existed since A.D. 135.
But here's the important point: After World War I, called "The War to End All Wars," there was the widespread belief that an era of millennial peace was just ahead. Postmillennial belief skyrocketed during the decades between the wars … and promptly disintegrated during and especially after World War II, when Israel declared statehood. Now the state of Israel has entered it sixtieth year. It has come to a critical moment in history, described so beautifully in Psalm 102:
But you, O LORD, shall endure for ever; and your remembrance to all generations. You will arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yes, the set time, has come. For your servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust. So the nations shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth your glory. When the LORD shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer. This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD(Psalms 102:12- 18 emphasis added).
The dusty stones of Zion lie at the centre of the world's greatest contest. The battle for Jerusalem is well underway. The "generation to come," better translated, "the last generation," is regathered Israel. These words were written for them and for us, as an exhortation to keep watching.
Yes, in many ways, these are discouraging times. But don't let anyone talk you out of the daily search for word of His imminent return. Keep your spiritual eyes on the clouds of heaven.
You can contact Gary Stearman via his website at http://www.prophecyinthenews.com/authorbio.asp?Author_ID=24
The above article was obtained from the Israel Report - firstname.lastname@example.org -Editor - Mike ClaydonSub Editor/Research - Warren SmithReaders may subscribe to the Israel Report (& Apostasy Alert) by putting the word 'subscribe' into an email to: email@example.com - OR to firstname.lastname@example.org