Although I love writing about what the Bible teaches (or at least what I think it teaches), I know that whenever I do it will inevitably raise more questions than it answers, and that I’ll then have to spend time answering those questions, which in turn will lead to more questions, which will need more answers. And you know, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But I’m a sucker for punishment, so here goes 🙂
Once again, I’m grateful to Phil for commenting on my last post, which was itself a response to my previous post. Anyway, I thought I’d respond to it very briefly on the comment section, but by the time my reply had made it past 2,000 words, I decided that I might as well post this one on the blog as well. Just in case anyone else is interested, that is.
Anyway, here was Phil’s comment:
“Regarding your point in the above article that 1 Corinthians 15 does not mention anything about Jesus returning to the earth to crush his enemies, I would reply that when Paul wrote those words he was not attempting to comprehensively describe everything that will happen at Jesus’s 2nd coming but rather he was focussing on the theme of death & resurrection and the chronology and the context thereof. By the same token, 1 Corinthians 15 does not mention Jesus’s judgement and rewarding of believers at his 2nd coming but that omission does not deny it will happen.
I think the following passages give at least some support to the idea that Jesus’s 2nd coming will involve a climactic showdown with his enemies: Matthew 13:40-42, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 and 2:8, 2 Peter 3:7, Revelation 19:11-21.
Feel free to challenge!”
Well yes, those who know me know that I love a challenge. So here goes.
Firstly, I get the point about Paul not comprehensively describing everything at Jesus’s second coming. However, here is what he says:
“But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then *at* his coming those who belong to Christ.”
The phrase “then at his coming” is crucial. If there were a period where Jesus rules from earth prior to the resurrection, but after his coming, wouldn’t Paul have written the following?
“But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then *after* his coming those who belong to Christ.”
But the way he writes it ties the two events – his coming and the resurrection – together with no hint at all that the second (the general resurrection) happens ages after the first (his coming to earth). And so because it uses the phrase “then *at* his coming”, rather than “then *after* his coming”, I’d say you’d need to do a lot of linguistic gymnastics if you want to wedge a 1,000 years in there.
Whilst I’d love to go through all the passages that Phil quoted, unfortunately I haven’t the time. So I’ll have to restrict myself to just one, which is the “Man of Lawlessness” passage in 2 Thessalonians 2.
But before I get there, I need to first make some general comments. However, they come with a health warning: Unless readers are familiar with what I’m about to say, they may well be tempted to conclude that I’ve taken leave of my senses, lost my marbles, gone nuts, flown over the cuckoo’s nest and am currently barking at the moon. Do bear with me though. Anyway, here it is:
Most, if not all of the passages mentioned by Phil, are not talking about the second coming of Christ and the end of time. They are dealing with events in the first century, and not events that are in our future (the exception to this may be the passage from Matthew, though I haven’t been able to look at that in any depth to form an opinion).
When you read through the New Testament, one of the things that becomes very obvious is that it has a sense of imminence about it. There are loads of passages which talk about “the time being at hand” “the end being near” “the time being short” etc. This is especially true of the Book of Revelation, where phrases like this are used several times in the first few chapters and again in the last.
This has been the cause for many sceptics to say that both Jesus and the Apostles were plain wrong. That they expected stuff to happen within their lifetimes, and the fact that it didn’t means they can’t be trusted. Christians then come along and try to hide their embarrassment by explaining it all away with verses like “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”. Which really won’t do. C.S. Lewis called Matthew 24:35, when Jesus says “all these things shall come upon this generation” the most embarrassing verse in the entire Bible.
But what if both the sceptics and the embarrassed Christians have misunderstood what was being said? They both assume that Jesus and the Apostles were talking about the end of time and the end of the world. But what if they weren’t?
I would submit that indeed they weren’t (and don’t worry, I’m not just making this up – there are many others who hold to this view). What they were talking about, in most of those “problem” passages, is not the end of the world (kosmos in the Greek) but the end of the age (aeon). But which age is it that was just about to end? It was the end of the Old Covenant age – an age which always prefigured and shadowed the coming of the Messiah.
When the Messiah came, there was no need for the Old Covenant types any longer (priesthood, temple, sacrifices etc). They were all fulfilled by one man, the Lord Jesus. Think of the Lord Jesus as the true Temple, and everything which went before him as the scaffolding. The problem was that those to whom the Messiah was sent not only rejected him; they tried to continue that old system which was passing away, and persecuted those who rejoiced in the coming of the Messiah.
This obviously comes out in the fact that they were instrumental in putting him to death. But it is also clearly seen in the book of Acts, where the central battle is not between the Gentile, Roman world and the Christians, but between God’s new people (the church) and those Jews who rejected their Messiah. All of which means that God needed to destroy the old (which Jesus warned in Matthew 23-24 would happen), so that the church could take its proper place as God’s new people – his bride.
The Book of Revelation basically describes this in detail. It is not a book about a time in our future (although some of the final few chapters are), but about the destruction of the old covenant system, and its replacement with the church. Or to put it another way, it is a book about divorce and remarriage: God finally divorces his unfaithful bride, as he had threatened time and time again through the Old Testament prophets, and he marries his new bride, the Church. And as he does so, the covenant curses promised in Deuteronomy come upon Israel/Judea, the unfaithful harlot.
I’m not going to try to prove that line by line here, as it would take way too long, but here’s just a couple of very compelling bits of evidence to consider.
In Revelation 18, we have the judgement on the harlot, Babylon. At the end of the chapter, we read this:
“And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.”
So who is Babylon? Well, where have we heard that kind of language before?
“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:34-37)
The language is unmistakably similar, and although the name “Babylon” in Revelation is symbolic (Babylon means Gate of Heaven, but she is a prostitute and therefore a false Gate of Heaven), Jesus’s pronouncement upon Jerusalem identifies it for us.
Another piece of evidence (and there are many more), is the description about “Babylon’s” cargo, mentioned earlier in chapter 18. There it talks about her “gold, silver, jewels, pearls, fine linen, purple cloth, silk, scarlet cloth, all kinds of scented wood, all kinds of articles of ivory, all kinds of articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour, wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.” This list of wares is basically taken from Exodus 25 (the construction of the Tabernacle) and the list of Solomon’s wealth (1 Kings 10). It is a description of earthly Jerusalem, which is about to be destroyed, to make way for the heavenly Jerusalem, the church.
All that is really by way of background to an explanation of 2 Thessalonians 2:8. It’s actually useful to put the whole of the passage from verse 1 to 8:
“Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.”
One of the first things that is obvious about this passage is that the Temple of God is standing. Which can only mean one of two things: either Paul is talking about the Temple that was standing in Jerusalem at that time, or he’s talking about one that will rebuilt at some point in the future, perhaps thousands of years later. At a plain reading of the passage, without any premillennial construct in mind, which sounds the more plausible explanation? Remember, this letter was not written to us (it was written for us, but not to us). It was written to Christians in the 1st century, when the Temple of God was still standing. And so isn’t it faintly absurd to think that he could have meant a Temple built thousands of years later, rather than the one standing in his day, without at least explaining this to them?
But doesn’t the passage talk about the Day of the Lord and the appearance of his coming? Yes it does. And so isn’t that obviously talking about Christ’s second coming? No, it isn’t. What Paul is doing is using the same kind of language – the Day of the Lord – that the Old Testament Prophets often used to describe God’s judgements. For instance, when describing the destruction coming upon Babylon, Isaiah says:
“Wail, for the Day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!” (Isaiah 13:6).
As for the phrase “his coming”, the word coming is the Greek parousia, which literally means “presence”. In the Epistle of James, the same word is used and is there again translated “coming”. But in that place, James tells his first century readers to “establish you hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” In other words, it was just around the corner, not in several thousand years. Again, what he was envisaging was not Jesus’s bodily return to earth at the end of time, but his spiritual presence in judgement upon apostate Jerusalem.
As for who the actual man of sin is, I am by no means sure of the exact identity. All I am sure of is that it was someone living at that time, and not in our future. Why? Because Paul is warning the Thessalonians of the first century what would happen, and he also hints that it is shortly about to happen. For instance, he warns them that there would first be a rebellion or a falling away. And indeed there was. The book of Hebrews especially focuses on that apostasy and is full of exhortations for its readers not to join with it.
Paul also tells them that someone is restraining this lawless man at that time. Again, I’m not sure of the identity of the one who was restraining. My best guess is that it was one of the Apostles who was in Jerusalem, and who with his witness and authority prevented an all out apostasy, until his untimely death. Paul also confirms the same imminent timeframe by telling them that the mystery of lawlessness was already at work – that is, it was around at that time.
Put all this together, and I think the best explanation of what Paul was referring to is that there would be a total apostasy from God (which there was), out of which someone would arise who would lead and mislead the unbelieving Jews, until God came and destroyed both him and them, along with the Temple and the whole Old Covenant system along with it in a devastating tribulation.
And if you read the history of the Jews in the late AD 60s, it is basically what we find. Not only was there a general moral lawlessness, but also a religious lawlessness. The historian Josephus mentions that the group known as the Zealots dispensed with the Biblical method of choosing priests, and basically picked whoever they wanted. Thus the Man of Lawlessness who sits in the Temple of God could well have been the apostate High Priest of that time (Phannias).
Another possible candidate was John Levi of Gaschala, who led the rebellion against the Romans and became the most powerful man just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. According to John Bray, he was:
“The key man in the destruction of Jerusalem, the greatest instigator of the tribulation upon the Jews in the city, and an ‘abomination’ himself as he ‘sat’ in power in the Temple itself. And he was the cause of the ceasing of the daily sacrifices three and one half years after Vespasian came against the city. So far as the people were concerned, he had taken the place of God in the Temple.”
But whether these identities are correct or not, the main point is this: This passage is not talking about something at the end of time, but rather about something that would happen within the lifetimes of those to whom the letter was addressed. And that something was the destruction of earthly Jerusalem – Old Covenant Israel – so that the New Jerusalem – the Church – could be properly established as God’s chosen people.
Well, that’s me done. I think I might write about something silly next time.