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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Unmuddling the Muddle

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Christian teaching about prophecy is a chaotic muddle.

Within Christendom, in the broadest and most general terms, we find Preterists, Historicists, Futurists and Idealists. When we get into specific features of the prophetic calendar such as the Millennium, we fragment further into Pre-, Post- and Amillennialists, and the Premillennialists subdivide yet further into Pre-Tribulationists, Mid-Tribulationists and Post-Tribulationists. If I’ve left your view out, forgive me.

You will be unsurprised to find that I have no particular interest in trying to straighten all that out, and no patience for it even if I had the skill.

First, I’d be writing on prophecy non-stop for the next two years. Second, anyone unfamiliar with these terms can easily explore them in greater detail on the numerous websites devoted to Bible prophecy, or through more traditional methods of study.

But I would note this: almost all of us make the error of coming at the prophecy stick from the wrong end.

Grabbing the Wrong End of the Prophetic Stick

Regardless of the prevailing view of Bible prophecy in your church or denomination, the process of learning about it often goes something like this: (1) new Christians express an interest in it; (2) over a period of weeks or months, they are introduced to a full-blown, neatly diagrammed and proof-texted theological system, and perhaps a cursory explanation of where the other prophetic systems fail; (3) they read some or all of the proof texts, which seem to them (in their epic ignorance of the subject of prophecy and of scripture generally) to say more or less what their teachers are teaching them; and (4) they sign on and repeat the process.

The level of detail differs depending on the view and the teacher, but if the desired outcome of the learning process is to produce thoughtful, reflective believers who have engaged with the actual words of scripture rather than just a bunch of scholarly opinions, I’d estimate we’re not really getting the job done.

Imagine No Systems. It’s Easy If You Try ...

So try imagining this instead. You are a new Christian living early in the sixth decade of the first century AD in a town near the intersection of the two greatest highways in the Roman Empire. You meet regularly with other believers in a church planted rather abruptly by the apostle Paul and his fellow-workers as described in Acts 17. You are most likely Greek, though you could also be a converted Jew; it doesn’t really matter. Either way, all your faith has to work with is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Everything you know about Jesus is via word of mouth, either from the apostle himself or more likely from another prophet or teacher; that is, unless you happen to have a prophetic gift yourself.

Then one evening, an excited fellow believer gets up and reads the original manuscript of 1 Thessalonians to its intended audience, and everything changes.

It’s admittedly tough to put ourselves back there in another time and place, but let’s try hearing Paul’s words as if we’ve never heard them before and don’t already have some kind of pre-baked theological “system” to slot them into.

If we succeeded in doing that, what do you think we’d notice?

A Message of Singular Importance

Well, we’d recognize Paul is sending us a message of singular importance. There are several reasons we might clue into this:
  • First, if we could ask around the other churches, we’d quickly find out this is the very first letter Paul wrote. Scholars date it as early as 50 AD. It appears the apostle has nothing more urgent on his mind. This new teaching is paramount.
  • Second, we’d notice the letter’s about the return of Jesus Christ, and he’s coming back not just to judge the world and sort out the mess it has become, but FOR US. Paul hits on the Lord’s return for his people at the end of each of his first three chapters (1:10, 2:19-20, 3:11-13), develops the subject in detail in 4:13-18, sets the return in the context of the Lord’s own established prophetic teaching in 5:1-11 and sums up with it in his closing (5:23). Christ’s return for his saints is by far the most significant point in his letter. Everything else hangs on it.
  • Third, we’d notice Paul is super-serious about getting this message across, so much so that he binds his readers with an oath to have this letter read to “all the brothers”. You have never heard of him doing this (for obvious reasons), but even if you could hang around long enough to collect copies of everything Paul would later write to the churches over the next 15 years, you’d never encounter that statement again. The apostle was not messing around.
Deliver Us From Wrath

Another thing we’d quickly notice is that one of the purposes for which the Son of God is coming from heaven to earth is to “deliver us from the wrath to come”. This coming is connected with “glory”, “joy” and “boasting”, not panic, fleeing and destruction. It sounds quite different from the things you might have heard about Jesus’ teaching to the Jews concerning the time of his “coming and of the end of the age”.

You’d almost think it was a different “coming” and a different sort of judgment altogether. I mean, there is not a lot of “establish your hearts blameless in holiness” in the stories you’ve heard about what Jesus told his Jewish disciples, though there is a fair bit of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

The Dead In Christ

Then there’s all this stuff about the “dead in Christ” rising first. That’s totally new. The Jews didn’t get a word of revelation about that, not least because there was nobody “in Christ” when Jesus told his curious disciples what was coming in Jerusalem’s future.

But that was them. You get this:
“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.”
Wow. You’d almost think we were intended to encourage one another with these words, rather than shiver in terror at the thought of being martyred in the Great Tribulation. Oh. Wait. We are.

The Day of the Lord

Now you’re into chapter 5 (though the original letter doesn’t have chapter divisions, of course) and here Paul is finally delving into prophetic territory you recognize, a brief reference to the teaching of Jesus about the Day of the Lord, something to which Matthew will later devote two whole chapters of his gospel. This is familiar stuff. As Paul says, where times and seasons are concerned, “you have no need to have anything written to you”, and “you are fully aware”. In fact, if this bit was the only prophetic teaching Paul had to share, he would have had no pressing urgency to write this letter. After all, you HAVE this information already. (Today, we can further confirm from Paul’s 2nd letter that he had already given the Thessalonians a very solid grounding in prophetic subjects like the “mystery of lawlessness” and the “man of lawlessness”: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?”)

But it looks like there are a few things here that Paul had not previously mentioned, or that, if he had, he felt needed serious re-emphasis. Here’s the new part. Ready?
God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”
“Wrath” is the other stuff, the stuff related to Jerusalem and its rejection of Messiah. “Wrath” is what the Christ-hating world is in for. That’s not to be the Christian experience.

One More Positive Word

And here’s one more positive word from the apostle:
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”
This coming is connected over and over again throughout Paul’s letter with judgment that the apostle is convinced will not fall on you, Christian.

Doubt me? Unlike the Thessalonian believers, we can easily go back and read Matthew 24-25 and compare both the message and the tone. When we do, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the “coming” about which Paul is informing the Thessalonian Christians is something distinct in both purpose and outcome from the “coming” the Lord Jesus described to his Jewish inquirers.

But if we insist on wadding all the Bible’s prophetic texts into a great big ball of systematic eschatology instead of approaching each message independently in its local context, we shouldn’t expect the finer distinctions in each passage to exactly leap out at us.

Should we?

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