Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21 the End of the World? Why you should enjoy the day and not worry, Part 3

I have had yet another thought of the return. One of the things that I ponder on a regular basis when thinking of the Second Coming is the way in which the Jews of the time envisaged the first coming of Messiah. Anyone who has looked into it even to a cursory level knows that the Jews at the time were divided over what to expect. Some anticipated God's direct intervention with no Messiah involvement (e.g. Sadducees). Others expected two Messiahs (Qumran), a priestly and a political. Some envisaged a warrior Messiah (Zealots), a political Messiah (Pharisees), others more spiritual and apocalyptic. It is hard to be sure what dominated, there were multiple expectations.

It all came down to interpretation of interpretation of the texts of Judaism. When Jesus did turn up, most Jews didn't recognise him at all. Most saw him as a prophet at best (e.g. Mark 6, 8). When he didn't forge an alliance with the Jewish leaders and lead them in a revolt against Rome, but focussed on polemic against Israel's leaders and acts of grace and mercy rather than power signs to impress the Jewish elite, they didn't understand him at all. In fact they sought to kill him. By his death he was even rejected as Messiah by his followers. The only two who got it at the cross were a Roman soldier and a mercenary killed at his side. Take for example the travelling disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 who spoke of Jesus or Nazareth a prophet mighty in deed and power. Even in Acts 1:6 they were still anticipating him leading a revolt to restore the kingdom of Israel, they had no idea of the scope of what Jesus was about. They didn't see that a crucified Messiah was essential to save the world and show it how to live – if only we would! The idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to them, they didn't understand God's regent coming in weakness, suffering, and death. The truth is that it is only looking back over the Scriptures of the OT that we can see Jesus in its texts, especially the Servant Songs of Isaiah, 42, 49, 50 and particularly, 53 (cf. Ps 22). They had glimpses of the Messiah like his birthplace and Davidic descent, but they were in the main veiled, found scattered over their Scriptures hard to find and interpret. Now we can see how he fulfilled them looking back – nothing like the 20/20 vision of looking back.

So we come to the Second Coming. We have the sacred Scriptures of both testaments, and we seek to interpret them. We come up with a range of alternatives from pre-millennialism whereby Jesus returns before a thousand year period of rule on earth before the climax – or some unspecified time. Or we come up with a post-millennial construct with the current age moving positively to the point where God's kingdom reigns supreme. Or we adopt amilliennialism whereby this age is the millennium (figuratively) and Jesus returns at its end, and all comes to a climax. Then there is the tribulation; for pre-millenialists a seven year period of suffering which Jesus will return before (pre-trib), at its midpoint (mid-trib), or afterward (post-trib). For the first of these two trib positions, add the rapture based supposedly on 1 Thess 4; Matt 24; Rev 4, whereby Jesus returns and whisks his people to be with him, leaving carnage on earth. Then there are the signs, anti-Christs, the preaching of the gospel across all nations, earthquakes, wars, persecutions, false Messiahs, etc. We pour over the texts of both testaments and seek to work out a timetable. The truth is, that there is so much apocalyptic layering and uncertainty about which texts apply to what period if at all, that it is all like looking through a mirror dimly at best (1 Cor 13).

I suspect we in reality will be like the Jews at the time of Christ. We will look back after his coming, in whatever way and form, and we will see it all there. We will say, 'wow, I never saw that, never applied that, got that wrong.' What matters is that Jesus will come back and we are to be ready (cf. Matt 25). It seems on the one hand to be very surprising and unexpected, like a thief in the night (e.g. 1 Thess 5). On the other hand it will be glorious, the world will see, it will be climactic and mighty (e.g. 2 Thess 1). I think wisdom suggests not to get too locked into much more than, Jesus is returning. Sure, there are signs, and as I have written in Chapter Four of my short book What's God Up To, I think we can know some things about it on the basis of the signs, but in reality we need to hang lightly to these. I ponder whether I should have said as much as I did in that chapter, I would hate to mislead God's chosen.

What we mustn't do is what Harold Camping has done. He thinks he has it all sorted. Like others with an apocalyptic bent and arrogant confidence in their ability to interpret Scripture above others, he has it all sorted. There have been over a 100 predictions of the return of Christ in the last century alone. As my last post notes, even in 50AD it was expected and misreported. I urge all Christians everywhere to consider Israel at the time of Christ. The tragedy was that Israel, generally speaking, rejected Jesus because they misread the hopes. Let's not do the same.

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