21 July 2019

The Antichrist in the New Testament

The Antichrist is most often assumed to be a global political leader. The New Testament provides a somewhat different portrayal.
     The term “Antichrist” occurs in the New Testament only in two of John’s epistles. He warned in his first letter that “it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come to pass” (1 John 2:18).  John did not deny that an individual “antichrist” would come; his point was that even in his day many “antichrists” had already arrived on the scene.
      The Greek term behind “antichrist” is antichristos. The preposition anti prefixed to it signifies “instead of” rather than “against.” An “antichrist” in this letter is not someone who opposes Jesus but a deceiver who attempts to replace the true Christ with something false.  The “antichrists” (plural) to whom John referred were men who “went out from us, but they were not of us; …but they went out that it might be plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19); that is, false teachers that rose up from within the Church (see also 2 John 7).
John’s term is probably derived from Christ’s repeated warning about future deceivers. “Take heed that no man deceive you…many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many…many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many… Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”
     Paul presented a similar idea in his “man of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-10). Whether Paul saw him as a political figure, His description focuses on the man’s ability to deceive and links him to a future apostasy (“let no one in any way deceive you.”).
     The “man of lawlessness” will seat himself in the “sanctuary of God…proclaiming himself to be God.”  This is the only verse in which Paul expressed an interest in the Temple in Jerusalem, assuming that is what he meant by the “sanctuary of God.” Elsewhere Paul consistently uses this and similar Temple language metaphorically for the church of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21).
    Paul’s description alludes to a passage from the book of Daniel that originally applied to the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV (Daniel 11:30-39. Cp. Daniel 8:10-14). That ruler was certainly a political figure but is also remembered within Judaism as a deceiver who led many Jews astray with his promotion of Hellenism and pagan religious practices. He is most remembered for his desecration of the Jerusalem Temple when he had an altar to Zeus Olympias erected on top of the altar of burnt offering in the court before the inner sanctuary. Additionally, Antiochus attempted to stamp out the Jewish faith by outlawing circumcision, Levitical dietary restrictions and other rituals foundational to the faith of Israel.
     Paul links this “man of lawlessness” with a coming “apostasy”; he will act “in accord with Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who are perishing, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. And for this reason, God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they might believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12).  The emphasis is not on this man’s political influence or authority, but on his power to deceive and turn people from the truth.
      The “Beast” of Revelation chapter 13 has some characteristics of a political figure but the book never identifies the “Beast” as the “Antichrist”; the term appears nowhere in Revelation. The grammatical gender of “beast” or thérion is always neuter and in the Greek, the pronoun used with it is also neuter; “it,” not “him” or “he.” This “Beast” combines the features of the world empires from Daniel chapter 7 (“the beast was like a leopard, and his feet as of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion”).  It is probable that the “Beast” represents a political system rather than an individual human.
     False prophets and teachers come not to deceive the world but to hoodwink disciples of Jesus Christ.  The agenda is to cause apostasy from the true faith.
      Warnings of coming deceivers are common in the New Testament.  For example, Paul described “false apostles and deceitful workers” of his day who “disguised themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).  Likewise, the Apostle warned that “the Spirit explicitly warns that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1).
      The Apostle Peter warned his congregations of coming “false teachers among you who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned” (2 Peter 2:1). Apostasy is presented as a direct result of the activity of deceivers.
      The Antichrist may turn out to be a world political leader but, in light of warnings from scripture, perhaps we should not be surprised if he first rises up from within the Church of God. His purpose is to deceive the elect and destroy the church. In any case, his modus operandi will be to offer a different and false version of Jesus; “instead of Christ.” He will proclaim “another gospel” and a “different Christ” that the one revealed on Calvary.

20 July 2019

The Coming of Jesus in First Peter

Jesus Holds the World
In his first epistle, Peter portrays Christians as participants in a worldwide suffering community of assemblies (5:8-9). A dominant theme is his call for perseverance through suffering and persecution. His references to the future coming of Jesus serve to encourage suffering Christians by reminding them of the believers of rewards to be received at his arrival.
     The congregations addressed include many Gentile believers, former pagans. They had inherited “futile ways” from their progenitors and lived in “darkness” (1:18, 2:9), and previously were a “no people” and idolaters that engaged in the sins and carnal excesses typical of their Gentile neighbors (1:14, 4:3).
 Peter applies language from the story of Israel to his congregations. Christian assemblies are the “elect sojourners of the diaspora,” alienated from the surrounding society, “strangers in a strange land,” and resident aliens in their native homeland (1:1, 1:17, 2:11, Deuteronomy 23:7, 28:25, 30:4, Psalm 39:12).
     Peter offers thanksgiving for the incorruptible “inheritance” and glorious promises God has bequeathed to Christians “according to His great mercy, having regenerated us unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from among the dead” (1:3-12). From the start, Peter anchors all that Christians receive in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
     Disciples will receive their full salvation “in the last season” when Jesus returns from heaven.  In the interim, the promise is “reserved in the heavens” waiting to be “revealed in the last time.” The Apostle Paul expressed a similar idea in Colossians 3:3-4:  For ye died and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ our life shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.”
     In the meantime, Christians find themselves “in manifold tests that the proving of their faith…by means of fire may be found for praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter links the future “revelation of Jesus Christ” with Christian salvation and rewards to be received on that day by the faithful.
     In light of all this, Christians must keep sober and direct their hope to the grace that is “being borne along to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” They must persevere through trials and “become holy in all manner of behavior.”
     Peter's congregations are comprised of “sojourners and pilgrims” who no longer belong to this evil age.  Considering their future hope, they must “abstain from fleshly lusts” and reflect “honorable behavior among the Gentiles,” so that their pagan neighbors may “glorify God on the day of visitation.” This indicates that both believers and unbelievers will be present when that day arrives.
     Christians should not be surprised by trials and sufferings. By persevering, believers participate in Christ’s sufferings and therefore ought to rejoice. At “the revelation of his glory,” they will indeed rejoice with exultation. For believers, that will be a time of glory and joy.
     Disciples who endure persecution “as Christians” should not be ashamed of their suffering but, instead, “glorify God in this name” because “it is the season for the judgment to begin with the house of God.”  This refers to a judgment that will occur at the end of the age.  Christians also undergo judgment, the examination of their faithfulness.
     But if judgment begins first with the house of God, “what shall be the end of them who yield not to the gospel of God?” Once again, the theme of the judgment of the wicked on the day of Christ’s “revelation from heaven” is presented. Peter does this to motivate Christians to holy living.
     Peter exhorts church “elders” to properly shepherd God’s flock in light of “the glory about to be revealed” in which they will have a share.  Elders who shepherd the Church will receive “an unfading crown of glory” on that day when “the Chief Shepherd is manifested” (cp. Colossians 3:4; 1 John 2:28).
Peter does not delve into any details about the coming of Jesus and related events. That is not his purpose, which is to encourage Christians to persevere in suffering and to live holy lives in the sight of their neighbors.
      Throughout this letter, Peter’s faith is forward-looking.  Christian rewards and salvation are received in the future when Jesus arrives from heaven.  That day will mean rewards for faithful believers but loss and condemnation for the wicked.  Final judgment occurs when Jesus is revealed from heaven.
     Peter refers to only one future coming of Jesus, not two, an event that will impact both believers and unbelievers.  There is no discussion of the church departing from the earth or the space-time continuum as disembodied souls to receive their rewards “in heaven.”  Believers receive salvation and glory at the end of the age when Jesus returns from heaven.

The Church is Appointed for Tribulation

Paul Arrested
Proponents of the Rapture claim, one of its purposes is to prevent the Church from enduring God’s “wrath” during the Tribulation. A passage by Paul to the Thessalonians is cited to validate the proposition: “God did not appoint us to wrath, but to the acquiring of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
     As a leading champion of the Rapture doctrine explains:  “1 Thessalonians 5:9 makes clear that God did not ‘appoint us to wrath’ (the Tribulation) but to ‘obtain salvation’ or deliverance from it” (Timothy LaHaye, The Rapture: Who will Face the Tribulation? [Eugene, OR:  Harvest House, 2002], p. 53.).
     The assumption underlying this argument is that “tribulation” and “wrath” are synonymous and both refer to the final Tribulation.
     A serious problem with this understanding is that in the very same letter the Apostle Paul exhorted the Thessalonians “not to shrink back in these tribulations. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Either Paul contradicts himself or he did not equate “tribulation” with “wrath.” Paul reminded the Thessalonians how they “became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much tribulation with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6).
     Jesus taught his disciples to expect tribulation and persecution in this world (Matthew 13:21, Mark 4:17, Luke 21:12). The disciples would have tribulation but should be of “good cheer because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Opponents would deliver up disciples “for tribulation, and kill them: and they will be hated by all the nations” (Matthew 24:9). Before the return of the Son of Man, there will be “great tribulation” but, rather than remove his disciples from the earth, God instead will “shorten” that period (“for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” [Matthew 24:21-22]).
     Jesus pronounced those persecuted for his sake “blessed!” The Kingdom of God belongs to such ones. “Blessed are you when men reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice! Be exceeding glad! For great is your reward in heaven!” It is a great honor to be found worthy to suffer for the Kingdom (Matthew 5:10-12).
     Jesus even exhorted disciples to love and do good to those who persecuted them (Matthew 5:44). He called believers to follow the same path of self-sacrificial service that he did. “A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
    The Apostle Peter wrote that it is thankworthy if a man endures suffering and grief for the sake of his conscience toward God. There is no glory or honor if one suffers for doing wrong (1 Peter 2:19-20, 4:15), but if one patiently endures suffering for obedience to God, it is praiseworthy. Moreover, believers “have been called for this” very thing.
     To faithfully endure suffering for the Gospel is to “follow in the footsteps” of Jesus who “left us an example” (1 Peter 2:19-23, 3:17-18). Christians found worthy to “suffer for righteousness' sake” are blessed (1 Peter 3:14). To suffer for the Gospel is in “accord with the will of God” (1 Peter 4:19).
     In his other letters, Paul encouraged Christians to rejoice in suffering.  Believers are to “exult in our tribulations because they bring about endurance, and our endurance a testing, and our testing hope” (Romans 5:3, 12:12, 2 Corinthians 1:4). Rather than seek escape from tribulation, the Apostle boasts how neither “tribulation nor anguish nor persecution nor famine nor nakedness nor peril nor sword” can separate believers from Jesus; “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-39). In tribulation Christians must remain patient and “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 12:12).
     It is God who “comforts us in every tribulation, so that we ourselves may be able to comfort those who are in any tribulation” (2 Corinthians 1:4). The tribulations of this life “prepare for us an everlasting weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
     In his second letter to the Thessalonians Paul boasted about their steadfastness, for they faithfully endured through “all their persecutions and tribulations” (2 Thessalonians 1:4). All occurred so they “might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God in behalf of which there were suffering, if, at least, it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you.” Believers and non-believers are both present when Jesus arrives, which will mean vindication for some and condemnation for others.
     “Wrath” in Paul’s letters is treated as something different than “tribulation”; it is, ultimately, linked with the end of the age and the judgment. The impenitent man stores up for himself “wrath” and “fury” for the “day of wrath” (Romans 2:5-8).  Because of sin, the “wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6-8). Because Christians have been set right by Christ’s blood, they shall “be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).
     God’s coming “wrath” is connected to the day of Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 1:10). God has not appointed the church to experience that wrath but, instead, the acquisition of salvation through Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Salvation means believers do not experience God’s wrath at the end of the age.
     When John addressed the seven churches of Asia, he identified himself with their situation; “I, John, your brother and fellow-participant in the tribulation and the kingdom and the perseverance in Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). “Tribulation” has a definite article or “the tribulation,” signifying something known and identifiable.
     In the seven “letters” to the churches of Asia only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no rebuke or correction; both are praised for faithfulness. Yet to Smyrna, Jesus declares: “I know your tribulation and things you are going to suffer.” Rather than escape, he encourages them “not to fear what you are about to suffer” and promises they will “have tribulation for ten days” (2:8-11). It seems the healthiest churches undergo persecution and tribulation.
     Jesus calls Christians at Smyrna to “be faithful unto death,” even if it means a martyr’s death. In this way believers “overcome” and escape something far worse than tribulation – “the Second Death.”
     In one vision John saw a great innumerable multitude of redeemed saints from every nation standing before the throne and the Lamb, men and women he saw “coming out of the great tribulation” (Revelation 7:9-17).  This refers to the same tribulation mentioned previously by John (1:9).
     Wrath” first appears in Revelation 6:12-17 when the Sixth Seal is opened.  This results in a final day characterized by celestial and terrestrial upheaval, and the wrath of the Lamb and God. This is not an extended period of tribulation but the final day of wrath.  Unredeemed men from every walk of life attempt to “hide from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come!”
     “Wrath” occurs next in when the seventh trumpet sounds (Revelation 11:15-19). God begins His final reign and it is the time for “the dead to be vindicated and to give their reward to God’s servants the prophets and to the saints,” but also for God’s “wrath and the time for the dead to be judged.” This is a picture of final judgment when the righteous are vindicated and the wicked condemned.
     The final hour to reap the harvest of the earth is declared in Revelation 14:14-20. Those who rebelled “drink the wine of God's wrath poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence…of the Lamb.” This portrays the same event as that described when the Rider on a White Horse “treads the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” following the final battle with the Beast and the armies of the earth.
     In the book of Revelation “wrath” refers to God’s final judgment against His enemies at the end of the age.
     In the book of Revelation, the Dragon persecutes the Son by waging war against the “seed of the woman,” identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). In Revelation, the victims of Satan’s persecuting activity are “saints,” men and women who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
     The Beast ascends out of the Abyss to wage war with the Two Witnesses, to “overcome and kill them.” The Witnesses “are two lampstands,” a symbol that represents churches (1:20, 11:4-7).
     The Beast that ascends out of the sea is authorized to “wage war with the saints and to overcome them.” Some are destined for captivity, others for violent death (13:7-10). The “saints” are none other than they “who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus” (14:12). In his final assault against the Lamb, the Devil raises his forces from the four corners of the earth to attack the “camp of the saints” (20:7-10).
     Paul wrote that “God did not appoint us to wrath” in the same epistle in which he also stated that “we are appointed for tribulation. There is no contradiction. For Paul, the two terms refer to two different things. “Wrath” is God’s retributive judgment upon the wicked; “tribulation” is what the world inflicts on Christians for the Gospel’s sake.
     Tribulation is something disciples of Jesus experience; it is a part of the Church’s life. Jesus predicted that those who follow him would undergo persecution. Suffering for the sake of the Gospel is not punishment or aberration but grounds for rejoicing. Being found “worthy” to suffer for the Gospel is a great honor and even a blessing. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). 
     In contrast, the unrepentant undergo Divine “wrath” and judgment at the end of the age. “Wrath” is a dreadful thing reserved for the unrepentant, something to be avoided at all costs and not a blessing for anyone. The New Testament does not equate “tribulation” with “wrath”; they are not synonymous.

The Universal Extent of the Beast's Reign

The Beast
Some prophecy teachers contend the extent of the Antichrist’s reign will be geographically or politically limited. Some even suggest that some nations will opt out of the Antichrist’s empire and resist the imposition of his rule. Most commonly, the United States of America and the modern state of Israel are assumed to be exceptions to the otherwise global reign of the “Beast.”   
     This proposition conflicts with the book of Revelation’s usage of the term “all,” its cosmic scope, and its apocalyptic mindset that divides humanity into two groups:  those who follow the Lamb, and, those who render homage to the Beast. Revelation nowhere suggests any third category.
     For example, in Revelation 1:7 there is a verbal allusion to and reapplication of Zechariah 12:10-12. In the original prophecy, “all nations come against Jerusalem” while the “house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” look to the one “whom they pierced and wail over him.” In Revelation, this prophecy is transformed into “every one who pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will wail over him.”
     One of the seven heads of the Beast from the sea is mortally wounded, then healed (Revelation 13:1-3). In reaction, “the whole earth marveled after the Beast and rendered homage to the Dragon…saying, ‘Who is like the Beast and who can make war with him?’”
     The Beast is given “authority over all tribes and peoples and tongues and nations” (Revelation 13:7). This language parallels the redemptive activity of the Lamb who “redeemed unto God by his blood men and women out of every (Greek pas) tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 13:7).
The Lamb redeems men and women “out of” every nation and ethnic group. In contrast, the Beast is granted authority to impose its rule over all those nations and ethnic groups.  If this language was limited geographically and ethnically when used of the Beast, the same would hold true for the extent of the Lamb’s redemptive activity (compare Revelation 7:9).
     Additionally, “all (Greek pas) they who are dwelling upon the earth will render homage” to the Beast and its image. This group is identified further as those “whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb” (Revelation 13:8). All those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book render homage to the Beast.
     Whether one’s name is written in the Book of Life is not limited or determined by geography, national or political affiliation, but by how one responds to the Beast. The statement, “all who dwell upon the earth will render it homage,” cannot be limited by geography or ethnicity.
     Another beast appears, this one “from the earth,” the “false prophet.” He uses religious deception and economic pressure to “cause the earth and its inhabitants to render homage to the first Beast” (Revelation 13:11-15). Elsewhere, “inhabitants of the earth” refers to humanity as a whole in rebellion against God and the Lamb (e.g., Revelation 3:10).
     A day is coming when God will judge the “inhabitants of the earth” because they killed His saints (6:10). In the series of Seven Trumpets, an eagle cries out, “Woe, woe, woe, for them who dwell on the earth” (8:13). The judgments unleashed by the Seven Trumpets target the “earth dwellers” that refuse to repent. If those “who dwell on the earth” refers to a group limited by geography and not to all fallen men and women, then logically the effects of the Seven Trumpet judgments are likewise limited.
     The “beast from the earth,” the False Prophet, “deceives them who dwell upon the earth.” All the “inhabitants of the earth,” whether “small or great, rich or poor, free or slave,” take the mark of the Beast. In contrast, those who follow the Lamb “wherever he goes” have his and his Father’s name inscribed on their foreheads (Revelation 14:1-5). Humanity is divided into two camps:  those who give their allegiance to the Beast and willingly take its mark, and those who follow the Lamb and have his name. There is no neutral ground or “opt-out” option.
     In Revelation chapter 14, an angel announces an “everlasting gospel to them who dwell upon the earth, even to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.” All are called to fear God because the hour of his judgment has arrived. If anyone renders homage to the Beast, “he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Revelation 14:9-10). This warning anticipates the final judgment of the whole earth, the time to “gather the vine of the earth and cast it into the great wine-press of the wrath of God.” This describes final and total judgment, not a partial one.
     The final battle is portrayed again in the vision of Jesus arriving from heaven upon a white horse to “judge and make war” (Revelation 19:11-21). He is followed by the “armies of heaven.” The Beast, the “kings of the earth and their armies” are gathered to make war with the Lamb. But there is no horrific or prolonged battle; as soon as this force is assembled, the Beast and the False Prophet are cast alive into the Lake of Fire and the rest of the assembled summarily destroyed.
     Nowhere does Revelation describe or suggest that any nation will opt out of the Beast’s reign or resist it militarily. In light of Revelation’s universal language, its global and cosmic scope, its apocalyptic perspective that divides all humanity into two groups, the suggestion that “all nations” does not mean “all” is excluded.

19 July 2019

Revelation's Beast compared to Daniel's Fourth Beast

In discussions on the book of Revelation, the “Beast” from the sea is often assumed to be the fourth beast from Daniel (Daniel 7:1-8; Revelation 13:1-10). Is Revelation simply expounding on Daniel’s earlier vision of a fourth beast? That Daniel’s vision of four beasts lies behind Revelation’s image is indisputable. Perhaps the book of Revelation borrows language from Daniel to build its own picture.
     Both Daniel’s fourth beast and Revelation’s “Beast” ascend from the sea, both have ten horns and both wage war against the “saints” (Daniel 7:21, Revelation 13:7). The tens horns in both visions represent “ten kings” (Daniel 7:24, Revelation 17:12). However, the more significant differences outweigh such similarities. 
Daniel saw four individual beasts ascending from the sea, whereas, John saw only one.  In Daniel’s vision, the first beast is compared to a lion, the second to a bear, the third to a leopard, but the fourth one has no analog in the animal kingdom; it is a monstrosity with ten horns.
     In Revelation, the traits of all four of Daniel’s beasts are combined into one creature and listed in reverse order (i.e., the beast with ten horns, the leopard, the bear, and the lion).  Revelation’s single “Beast” is a composite of all four of Daniel’s beasts; it is related to them, of the same character, but also is something beyond them.
     The ten horns of Daniel’s fourth beast represent ten kings that rule the fourth kingdom. In contrast, the ten horns of Revelation’s “Beast” have “received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour” (Revelation 17:12).
     Daniel’s beast had ten horns and another “little horn” rose up from among them after three of the ten were removed. This “little horn” was “speaking great things” (Daniel 7:8). In contrast, Revelation’s Beast has “seven heads” in addition to its ten horns, one of which was “smitten unto death; and his death-stroke was healed” (Revelation 13:3). In Daniel, the “little horn” was speaking great things, whereas, in Revelation, the “Beast” itself was “given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies.”
     Daniel’s four beasts from the sea represent four successive kingdoms (Daniel 7:17, 7:23). The first, the winged lion, undoubtedly was Babylon (Daniel 2:38). The second, the bear with one side raised higher than the other, almost certainly was the Medo-Persian Empire that succeeded Babylon. In the book of Daniel, the “kingdom of the Medes and Persians” is always a single kingdom that includes both nations (Daniel 8:20, 11:1-2).
     The third beast with four wings and four heads would then represent the Greek conquests begun by Alexander the Great with the overthrow of the Persian Empire. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided into four lesser domains among his generals. The four heads of the leopard point to this fourfold division.
     The identity of the fourth beast is made clear in the vision of the Ram and the Goat and in its interpretation. The “little horn” speaking “great things” from the fourth beast appears again as a ruler over one of the Goat’s four successor regimes (Daniel 8:1-27). In this vision’s interpretation, the Goat is identified with Greece. The “little horn” is a king “of fierce countenance” who wages war against the saints and desecrates the Temple, setting up in it a “transgression that desolates.” This parallels the “little horn” of the preceding vision that waged war against the saints and the beast of Revelation that likewise wages war against the saints (Revelation 11:4-7; 13:7).
     Daniel’s vision of four successive kingdoms had historical fulfillments prior to the composition of Revelation; the rise and fall of Daniel’s fourth beast was in John’s past.  Therefore, the single “Beast” from the sea in Revelation 13:1-10 is not identical with Daniel’s fourth beast.
     The book of Revelation does not use Daniel’s framework of four successive kingdoms. Instead, it utilizes a sevenfold succession of empires. The seven heads of the “Beast” represent “seven mountains” on which the Great Harlot sits. In turn, they represent “seven kings” or kingdoms (compare Daniel 7:17, 7:23). In John’s day, five of the seven had already “fallen,” “one is,” and “another is yet to come” (Revelation 17:9-11). The identities of the five “fallen” realms are not pursued and, presumably, their identities are not relevant to Revelation’s message.
The one kingdom that “is,” that is, the one that was present in John’s day, could only be Rome. The “Beast” was already active persecuting the churches of Asia.  However, there is yet to be a future and final incarnation of the “Beast.” When it appears, it “must continue a little while” and then “go into destruction.”
     In this manner, John presents the “Beast” as a trans-historical reality.  It was already alive and working to destroy the Church in the late first century. Many of the aspects of this “Beast” are recognizable in the character and activities of the Roman Empire, just as first-century realities are seen in the messages to the Seven Churches of Asia in chapters 2-3.
     One day the final “Beast” will arrive and proceed to “make war with the Lamb” (Revelation 17:14). Since the Lamb has already been exalted to reign from Heaven’s throne (Revelation 5:5-12), and since the Devil has been expelled from the heavenly courtroom as a result (Revelation 12:9), Satan’s agents cannot attack Christ directly. Instead, they assault his Church. The “Beast” attacks the Lamb by waging “war” against the saints (Revelation 11:7, 12:17, 13:7-10, 20:7-10).
      In Revelation 13:1-10, John borrows imagery from Daniel 7:1-8 and 7:21 to build a portrait of another world power that will threaten the very existence of the Church.  It is not identical with any of Daniel’s four beasts, but it most certainly is of the same nature and character as them.
     The rise and fall of imperial powers throughout history follow a consistent pattern. Satan has been pushing this same agenda since, at least, the incident at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). However, his final beastly attempt will be far worse for all who follow the Lamb than any of his previous efforts.

15 July 2019

The Last Days in the New Testament

Interpretations go awry when they ignore or misunderstand New Testament statements about “the last days.”  This includes not only end-time prophecy but other topics as well; for example, the gift of the Spirit and its significance in the redemptive plan of God.
     When we hear “last days” we assume it is a reference to a final short period just before Jesus returns. But the New Testament presents the “last days” as an era of fulfillment that began with the death, resurrection and the exaltation of Jesus. 
(Hebrews 1:1-3) – “Whereas, in many parts and in many ways of old, God spake unto the fathers in the prophets, At the end of these days, He hath spoken unto us in his Son,—whom he hath appointed heir of all things, through whom also he hath made the ages; Who, being an eradiated brightness of his glory, and an exact representation of his very being, also bearing up all things by the utterance of his power, purification of sins having achieved, sat down on the right hand of the majesty in high places.”
      The book of Hebrews begins with a declaration concerning how God “in these last days spoke to us by a Son.”  Hebrews 9:26 describes how Jesus “appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Such passages place Jesus at the start of this period or, more correctly, as its starting point.
     The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “the appointed time has been shortened…For the forms of this world are in the process of passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29). The last verb is in the Greek present tense, which signifies continuing action; the forms and institutions of this age have been passing away ever since the death and resurrection of Jesus.
     A few passages later, Paul described how the Hebrew scriptures were written down for the instruction of Christians at Corinth, the ones “upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Apostle made a similar point to the Galatians when he declared that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4).
     Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, changed the opening word of Joel 2:28 from “afterward” to “in the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” (Acts 2:17). He linked the outpouring of the Spirit to the last days; the gift of the Spirit demonstrated that the era predicted by Joel had begun. Similarly, Peter declared that Jesus was destined “before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20).
      John in his first epistle warned his congregations that “it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
     Such references about the “last days” have caused confusion for some and provided fodder for critics.  For example, some voices argue that the first Christians, including Jesus, believed the second coming would occur in their day.  They, obviously, were quite mistaken. But this misunderstands the Bible’s concept of the “last days.”
     The Hebrew scriptures see history divided into two ages; the present evil age and the “age to come,” the latter a term found several times in the New Testament.  The coming age would be ushered in when the Messiah came.  Beliefs about the details may have varied within Israelite society but the basic outline remained the same.
      By the first century AD, some Jewish leaders were looking for a royal and militaristic messiah who would destroy the nation’s enemies and free Israel from foreign domination. Others waited for a priestly messiah.
Two scriptural promises became key to messianic expectations:  the expected outpouring of God’s Spirit and the resurrection of the dead (Joel 2:28, Ezek. 37:26-27). Such expectations were in mind when faithful Israelites spoke of the “last days.”
     These expectations came to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, only not in the ways expected by his Jewish contemporaries.  In his ministry, Jesus inaugurated the "kingdom of God"; no term is found more often on his lips in the gospel accounts. In his exorcisms and healings, Jesus was reclaiming “territory” for God and “binding the Strong Man,” Satan. Such miracles demonstrated the arrival of God’s kingdom and the activity of His Spirit. The "last days" had arrived.
      The task of gospel proclamation that Jesus assigned to his church is to herald the arrival of God’s kingdom and to call all who will heed to act accordingly. In Jesus, God has inaugurated His reign on the earth and it will continue to move forward to its final consummation when Jesus returns.
     The resurrection of Jesus marked the start of the general resurrection expected in the last days. This is why the New Testament calls his resurrection the “firstfruits” of our own (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The gift of the Spirit is also the “firstfruits” of the future redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).  The Spirit is linked with bodily resurrection because resurrection is an act of new creation.  From the beginning, God’s Spirit has been the agent of creation and the source of all life (Genesis 1:1-2). 
The gift of the Spirit is our “earnest” (arrabōn), God’s “down payment” on the future bodily resurrection and the New Creation, His rock-solid “guarantee” that He will complete what He started in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14).
     The “last days” have been underway since the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit.  The Cross was far more than the execution of Jesus or a model for selfless living.  On it, God defeated all the “powers and principalities” that were opposed to Him and had enslaved mankind.  The final victory has already been won and it is cosmic in scope.
     With Calvary, history has entered its final phase. The existing order has been winding down to its final destruction ever since; it is in its final death throes. Jesus through his church is engaged in a “mopping up operation,” especially as his people proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom to all the nations. 
The “last days” is NOT a chronological marker but a theological concept; it refers to the state of affairs that has been in existence since the death and resurrection of Jesus.
     Salvation is now available to all who willingly receive it.  God is establishing His final rule over the earth.  He has constituted his people, Jew and Gentile, a “kingdom of priests” to mediate His presence and light to a darkened world. The church is God’s people and now lives “between the times.” She belongs to the coming age but still lives in the old one in unredeemed bodies.
      In Jesus, and subsequently, in his church, the future age has irrupted into the middle of the old order.  The early church did not have an otherworldly outlook but a future-oriented one. It looked for salvation in the coming age.
     Jesus will usher in the final consummation when he arrives in glory to resurrect the dead and bring in the New Creation. The final result will not be the destruction of the material universe but a New Heaven and Earth.