The Shape of Things to Come: Questions and Answers

On April 24 Riverview Baptist Church held a panel discussion on the doctrine of last things called “The Shape of Things to Come.”  You can listen to this discussion here.  As part of the panel discussion we invited questions from the audience.  Many of the questions submitted, however, were not answered due to time constraints.  Pastors Joel and Levi provide answers to the questions that weren’t addressed during the discussion below. 

“Do you suppose that as you grow older (much like a few of us) your perspective on the end times (etc.) may change?”

Joel’s answer: It is a natural distinction of human life that our views on certain issues evolve with time.  The more perspective that we have and wisdom that we have gained affords us a better view on life issues, and more experience upon which to draw.  And as we learn more about and from the word of God over time, it seems only natural that our views about certain theological subjects would progress accordingly.   Eschatological (end times) views are certainly subject to this kind of evolution.  It should be noted, however, that this kind of change must be a result of responding to the truth of God’s word, rather than as a form of sentimentality or an emotional response to aging or changing culture (e.g. “Back in my day…”).  In other words, we want our views on the end times to evolve because we are coming to know God’s truth better and more thoroughly, rather than because we are sentimentally looking backwards or forwards toward an idea that appeals to us emotionally. 

“Levi, what does the ‘gift of tongues,’ as you mentioned, have to do with the last days since the gift of tongues has ceased? (1 Cor. 13:8)”

Levi’s answer: This is a good question. There is considerable debate as to whether or not the gift of tongues has ceased or not. But that has little to do with what I was referencing when it comes to the gift of tongues being a sign for the end times. I was not referencing the modern charismatic idea of tongues; rather, I was referencing the first occurrence of tongues at Pentecost in Acts 2. Peter in his sermon at Pentecost points back to Joel 2:28-32 where the pouring out of the Holy Spirit was promised for the last days. So Peter makes the argument that he was in the last days because Joel 2:28-32 was fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out and the disciples spoke in tongues. Since Pentecost happened all the way back in the first century and since Peter said that those tongues were evidence of the last days, we are therefore in the last days whether or not tongues continue for us today. That was the point I was trying to make.

“Do you believe the days of Noah, just before the flood, are as bad as today?”

Levi’s answer: I believe there is a constant reality throughout human history after the fall—man is sinful and he pursues that sin as best he can. It is in that way we live in the same reality as Noah did at his time. With that being said, I believe this question is built off of what Jesus says in Matthew 24:37-39, “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

This passage is sometimes interpreted that the end times will be like Noah’s day in that they will be similar in evil. I do not think that is what the context is getting at. What the passage is saying is the world will not see the judgment of God coming just as it did not see it coming during the days of Noah. Hence why they were still “marrying” and they were “unaware until the flood came and swept them all away”. This is how they will be similar. That is the parallel Jesus is getting at, not an attempt to equate the evil of those two timeframes, but to equate the cluelessness of the world in both situations that judgment was coming from God.

“The Bible gives us what it gives us.”  Does that mean we should or should not take the Bible literally?”

Joel’s answer: This question was raised in response to a sentiment expressed in the panel discussion, namely that the Bible is intentionally ambiguous when it comes to specific details of the end times process.  The point of the sentiment expressed in the seminar is that we are to be satisfied with what the Bible tells us about the end of all things, and we should regard the message of the Bible on the end times as sufficient.  A trap that many Christians have fallen into is to be discontent with the limited information the Bible gives us, and they have sought answers to their questions from other (uninspired) sources.  This is a practice that Christians must stop.  Looking for answers beyond those provided in scripture implies that the answers provided by the Bible are insufficient, and most – if not all – the answers provided by extra-biblical sources are erroneous.  That being said, the Bible gives us the information it gives us – nor more, no less – and we should be satisfied with that.  And of those things that it does tell us, we should absolutely take it its meaning and message literally.  (It should be noted, however, that this is a different question from how we are to interpret biblical texts that speak on the end times.  Literal and/or figurative interpretive methods of significant biblical texts are integral to the formulation of the various millennial views.)

“What about replacement theology, do you support it?”

Levi’s answer: The term “replacement theology” is a derogatory term some dispensationalists use to describe those who believe in Covenant theology. It should be noted that Covenant theologians would reject such a term. The term is often linked to anti-Semitism, but almost all Covenant theologians are not anti-Semitic. For this reason I do not like using the term “replacement theology” because it is more a political word used to put down someone’s opponent and to label them as guilty by association. Really this debate revolves around the difference in how dispensationalists and covenant theologians understand Scripture.

The key difference between Covenant and Dispensational theologians is how they understand the relationship between the covenants (old and new). Dispensationalists see mostly disunity between the old and new covenants. They believe, for the most part, that the individual covenants stand-alone by themselves.

Contrary to this, Covenant theologians see a lot of unity between the old and the new covenants. Covenant theologians believe that since the Fall all of the covenants are the same outworking of what they call the “covenant of grace.” So they often see a one-for-one correspondence between the new covenant and the old covenant. Baptism and circumcision would be one such example. They view these two as being in essence the same thing.

The difference between dispensationalism and covenantal theology is most plainly seen in their views of Israel. Dispensationals believe that Israel and the Church are two separate entities with different plans of inheritance in the new creation. Covenant theology believes that the Church is the one-for-one substitute for Israel—the church (which they define as all believers both Jew and Gentile) is Israel in that they are the people of God. This is why dispensationalists label that view as “replacement theology.”

I disagree with both of these larger theologies. I believe there is both unity and disunity between the covenants. In other words, I think all of the covenants work together and they progress as they move toward their fulfillment in the new covenant work of Jesus Christ. I do not believe the church is Israel, so I disagree with Covenant theologians. I also do not believe that God has two different plans of inheritance or salvation, one for Jews and one for Gentiles, therefore I also disagree with dispensationalists. So no, I do not support “replacement theology,” rather I believe that the Church is a new creation, something totally new which has no one-for-one equivalent in the Old Testament. In Christ, everything is fulfilled as he is the substance of the shadows found it the Old Testament. I believe the focal point to understanding Scripture is Jesus Christ and that in him mankind is made new because he is the true Israel. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gal. 3.28) because all who have faith are now equal in him.

“Does the Bible say there will be a “Millennium?”  Why do all the theories use this word?  Will the Millennium be a physical reign on our present earth?  Only Premillennialism seems to embrace a 1,000 year period.”

Joel’s answerRevelation 20.1-6 describes a 1,000 year period of time in which Satan is bound and Christ reigns.  While the word does not appear in scripture, this 1,000 year period of time is commonly referred to by Christians as the Millennium.  The three main views of the process of the end times each regard the Millennium described in Revelation 20.1-6 differently.  Premillennialism asserts that Jesus will return to the earth, and that his return will inaugurate his 1,000 year reign on the present earth (meaning that the events of Revelation 20.1-6 begin at Jesus’ return).  Postmillenialism asserts that the Millennium refers to a “golden age” – which may or may not last 1,000 years – in which the world and the people therein operate under biblical principles and the truth of the gospel. 

This “golden age,” Postmillennialists say, will be ushered in by the proliferation of the gospel throughout the world.  At the end of this “golden age,” Jesus returns to earth.  In this sense, the Millennium of Postmillennialism is not necessarily a 1,000 year period of time, although in this view the “golden age” does take place on the present earth.  Finally, Amillennialism asserts that the 1,000 year period referenced in Revelation 20.1-6 is symbolic of a present reality – that of dead saints reigning with Christ in heaven right now.  In this sense, Amillennialists don’t believe in a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on this earth.  In summary, only two views (Premillennialism and Postmillennialism) interpret the Millennium as taking place on the present earth, and only one view (Premillennialism) interprets the Millennium as lasting a literal 1,000 years. 

“Jesus said, “When you see the abomination of desolation… standing where it ought not be….flee.’ What would one see?”

Levi’s Answer: Jesus’ discussion of the end in both Matthew 24 and Mark 13 is one of the more difficult passages to understand in the gospels. Where you align yourself (amillennial, premillennial, or postmillennial) will largely determine how you understand this passage. For example, a postmillennialist would understand this prophesy to have been fulfilled completely when Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 AD. So for them they would say when the temple was destroyed by Rome that was the abomination of desolation which the Israelites saw.

Conversely, if you are a dispensational premillennialist you would see most or all of Jesus’ discussion in these passages as yet to be fulfilled in the future 7-year Great tribulation. They would say the temple will be rebuilt and when that happens the Antichrist will perform another abomination of desolation in the newly built temple.

For me, I think in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 Jesus is constantly going back and forth between what is past for us and will come in the future. As far as the abomination of desolation I believe the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD was an initial fulfillment (or foreshadow)  of that prophecy but that there is still a final fulfillment to come when the antichrist will be standing in the new temple of God. I do not believe this to be a physical temple in Jerusalem, rather the temple in the New Testament is the Church (Ephesians 2-3). So the abomination of desolation will have to do with some evil Satan will bring about against God’s new temple—the church. That I think is the best way to understand it, but I hold that understanding loosely.

“What do you believe about persecution coming to America while believers are still here?”

Joel’s answer: This question presupposes a Premillennial Dispensationalist view in which believers are raptured.  Moreover, it presupposes the persecution of Christians in America as a sort of “sign of the times.”  In making these presuppositions, this question perhaps puts proverbial cart before the horse.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus warns his followers that they will experience difficulty as a result of following him (John 15.18, 16.33.).  Additionally, the Apostles warn of a general discontinuity between the Christian worldview and the worldview of those living in the world that will create discomfort for Christians, mostly manifested as persecution (1 John 3.13).  This means that the persecution of believers has been a part of the normal Christian life since the first century.  It further means that all believers at some point or another will undergo persecution regardless of their geographical location or time in history.  In fact, we could safely say that persecution of some variety is a defining mark of true believers.  It is in this sense, then, that we should be careful about interpreting the persecution of American Christians – or the perceived increase of persecution of American Christians – as a “sign of the times.”  Indeed, persecution is promised, not as a sign of the times, but as a part of the normal Christian life.  On the other hand, one clear message of the Bible is that societal conditions will decay and grow increasingly morally impervious and increasingly hostile toward those who follow Jesus.  The degree and severity of this hostility, however, is undefined by the Bible, and we should be careful about coming to conclusions regarding the end times based on our own perceptions and interpretations of perceived signs of the times. 

“What about the ingathering of the Jews to Israel? That is a condition that wasn’t being met in the first century.”

Levi’s Answer: I must admit I am little confused by this question. If this question is about the Jews returning to their physical land which happened in 1948, I must say that I have no scriptural passage which I can think of that directly ties to that. As far as the first century is concerned, until 70 AD, the Jews did live in Israel, but they did so under Roman rule. Remember, the Jews expected a Messiah who would free them from the Romans, but instead they got Jesus who was there to free them from their sins. It was not that Jesus was not what God had promised, he was. Rather, the majority of the Jews at that time had misunderstood who and what their Messiah was going to be—the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. In other words, the majority of Jews in the first century looked for a type of ingathering to their land and in the process they missed their Messiah.

If instead this question is meant to be about Romans 11 which appears to speak of a massive amount of Jews repenting and becoming Christians before the end then I would respond differently. I believe that before the end, many Jews will come to Christ, but I also believe that was to an extent happening in the first century. The Christian church was built by Jews who converted. Now I anticipate that there will be more conversions before the end as I believe that is what Paul is talking about in Romans 11.

“What is the importance of Israel to understanding the end times? In May 1948 Israel became a nation. Israel was often referred to as the fig tree and Jesus said when the fig tree begins to blossom ‘look up for your redemption is draweth nigh.’ Does May 1948 begin the countdown, so to speak?”

Levi’s Answer: This question comes from Luke 21:29-31, “And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees.  As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  It is true the fig tree was often used as a symbol for Israel, we see this plainly when Jesus curses the fig tree (Mark 11.12-25), but I do not believe in this instance there is any special connection to Israel. Why? First, Jesus lists not only the fig tree but also “all the trees” so this parable is hardly limited to or focused on just a fig tree representing Israel. Second, the focus of this parable is that we can tell the changes in the seasons as these trees begin to blossom. Third, Jesus then brings the analogy home by saying, “when you see these things taking place” then we will know what the seasons of this world are changing. What are “these things” Jesus says are signs of the changing of the seasons? This statement comes at the end of Jesus describing a lot of signs which will occur before the end so it best to take “these things” to include all of what Jesus had to say about the end in this passage. The blooming of the fig tree then is nothing more than an analogy saying we need to be able to read the seasons and thus it is not about the Jews returning to the land.

So no, I do not believe that May 1948 set the clock in motion. Many dispensationalists have made that argument in the past and have thus incorrectly predicted the end of the world several times based on that belief. I believe that such a reading of Luke 21:29-31 stretches the text beyond what Jesus intended it to mean. So no, the Jews returning to Israel did not set the clock in motion, rather Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection has brought us into the last days (Acts 2:17) and thus the clock has been ticking for about two-thousand years. Nonetheless we must continue to pay attention and to pray, “Lord come quickly!”