There is much more to “end-times” or ultimate things (eschatology) than what we say actually happens in the last days. This is really a discussion about how we interpret texts and particularly how we should interpret Holy Scripture (hermeneutics). We say what we do about eschatology because of what we think God is doing in history. At the center of the debate is the question of “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). Of course, this is not a new question. During our Lord’s earthly ministry and after his resurrection and before his ascension, the disciples asked him repeatedly, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Indeed, there was a widespread rabbinic and popular notion that the Messiah should be a powerful politico-military figure of Davidic strength and skill—”David has slain his tens of thousands” (1 Sam 18:7). John 6:14–15 records,
After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
It was not, as some might have it, that the timing was off, but rather that an earthly kingdom was contrary to his every purpose. Again, at the end of his life, during his triumphal entry, he did not come to establish an earthly kingdom, but rather to fulfill prophecy, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:15; Isa 40:9; Zech 9:9).
Jesus had taught the disciples and others that he came not to bring an earthly kingdom as they expected, but rather he came to bring salvation from sin. At the end, when “the men of Israel” could no longer tolerate his refusal to submit to their eschatology, their plan for history, they crucified him. Scripture says,
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matt 27:41–2)
It is also a sad fact that many Christians have agreed with the chief priests and teachers of the law. Classic Dispensationalism has long held that the Pharisees had the right method of interpreting the Bible, they simply reached the wrong conclusions. It is the Dispensational-Premillennial belief that God made a promise to Abraham (Genesis chapters 15 and 17) that he would give to him an earthly, national people with the result that, in the Dispensational view, it has always been God’s intention to have such a people and if the Jews refused the first offer (or Jesus refused their terms!) then there must be an earthly, Jewish, Palestinian, kingdom in the millennium.
According to Dispensationalism, God was so committed to creating such an earthly, national people that this was the primary reason for the incarnation, birth and ministry of Christ. Had they accepted his offer of an earthly kingdom, Jesus would not have died. In this scheme, Jesus’ saving death on the cross is a happy by-product of God’s plan for national Israel.
It is also an article of faith among many Premillennialists that the creation of a modern Israeli state, in Palestine in 1948, is a providential confirmation of their claim that the Jews are God’s earthly, national people and that further, God continues to work out history along two parallel tracks, with an earthly Jewish people and a spiritual, Christian people.
This way of proceeding, however, is fraught with difficulties. First, such a way of reading contemporary events is highly dubious. Who among us knows certainly the exact meaning of providence? If a loved one gets cancer, should we speculate about what sin caused it? Our Lord warned against trying to interpret providence (John 9). If we cannot even guess the meaning of relatively small providences, how are we to interpret the meaning of rather larger providences? Who is to say that we should focus on the Israeli state? Perhaps we should focus on the plight of Palestinian Christians who have suffered gravely at the hands of Jews and Muslims, especially since the formation of Modern day Israel?
Though it might be exciting to think that God is doing something spectacular in our times, one fears that our lust for excitement is no better than the cry of those Israelites who said, “Give us Bar-Abbas.” It may well be that the end-times madness we have witnessed, first in the late 1970’s, again during the Gulf War and again in recent years, is really a search for certainty. Just as earlier generations turned away from the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, in favor of revivals, our age seems bent on finding confirmation of the faith in the delusion that we are witnesses to the end of history. The fact is that Christians have often thought the same thing, and they have been wrong.
Remember that after the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1) where Moses and Elijah appeared before their Lord, the disciples peppered Jesus with questions about an earthly Messianic kingdom, about whether Elijah had yet to come. Jesus replied saying,
“To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”
It was always Jesus’ intention to preach the advent of the Kingdom (“…the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel”— Mark 1:15), die for sinners, and rule his kingdom, as he is now, at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:36).
Later, in Matthew 19:27–30, after hearing Jesus’ teaching about the true nature of the kingdom, Peter again asked the kingdom question, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” To which Jesus responded,
I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Our Premillennial brothers take this as a promise of an earthly Jewish kingdom, but Jesus understood the kingdom quite differently. The parables which follow teach precisely that God is not setting up an earthly Jewish kingdom, but rather that, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” and that
“the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt 20:18).
He was even more pointed to the mother of James and John, who was looking for work for her boys: “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Matt 20:21). He rebuked her by telling her that not only is he not going to set up an earthly kingdom, but that he is going to suffer and die and they are going to suffer and die because of him, because “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28).
Therefore, we cannot agree with the argument of the Dispensationalist Clarence Larkin, when he interpreted Jesus’ words,
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:7–8).
not as a rebuke to the disciples for seeking an earthly kingdom, but only as a caution to wait for the earthly kingdom.
Next time: The Nature of Jesus’ Kingdom