Thursday, January 6, 2000

Y2Katechism on the "Awesome" Last Things

Y2Katechism on the "Awesome" Last Things

By Stephen F. Noll

DID Advent Sunday pass you by without hearing a good sermon on Christ’s Return? Have you moved on to the pageantry of "Once in Royal David’s City" without noticing the last verse about seeing Jesus in heaven, "when like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around"? If so, let me offer a short catechism on the "last things" before we get to the new millennium.

What are the "last things"? The last things, what scholars call "eschatology," have to do with death and judgment, heaven and hell. These are some of the most awesome realities, even though we often ignore them until God suddenly says: "This night your soul will be required of you" (Luke 12:20).

Is Jesus Christ coming again? Yes. Just after Jesus ascended into heaven, an angel as-sured his disciples that "this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) Each week we confess in the Nicene Creed that "he will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead." Jesus comes to us often in the Spirit, but only once again in the body.

What are the chances he will come on January 1, 2000? Not likely, unless he has adjusted the millennial clock. Since by traditional reckoning Jesus was born in the year 1, Y2K actually begins in 2001. But since the traditional clock is several years late, Jesus probably should have returned in 1996! All this confusion simply goes to show that "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matthew 24:36).

But isn’t he delayed? Why has he not returned sooner? True, saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up "how long?" And the answer is that God is waiting "until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete" (Revelation 6:11). What seems like a delay to us is a wonderful sign that God plans to save "a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Revelation 7:9).

You keep quoting from the Book of Revelation. Is it really a prophecy about the end-time? The Book of Revelation is the supreme statement of God’s plan of salvation being worked out in the present world (in John’s day that world was Rome) and leading up to the great final Day of the Lord’s Return. It is neither just about Rome, nor just about America, nor just about the distant future, but for all time seen telescopically from the end backwards.

Does Revelation teach that believers will be "raptured" into heaven before Christ returns? No, it doesn’t. The idea of being "caught up" with Christ is one of St. Paul’s metaphors for resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:17). According to Revelation, Christians are "martyrs" who come through great tribulation by confessing Christ in the face of worldly hostility (Revelation 7:14).

Why is the idea of a Millennium so important? A millennium, 1,000 years, is a potent symbol of an epoch of time. That is one reason Christians went back and began counting years Before Christ and Anno Domini "in the year of our Lord." It is natural therefore for people to be anxious when a new millennium arrives, but the only real millennium to be in awe of is when Christ brings history to a final close.

Why then is it that the martyrs will reign with Christ a thousand years before the general resurrection of the dead (Revelation 20:4)? This is a hard verse, but I take it to mean that those whose lives have been cut short because of their witness to Jesus — like the persecuted Christians in the Sudan today — will receive a special reward for their endurance.

Will everyone be saved? The real question is, in view of the deadliness of human sin, how can anyone be saved? The Good News is that "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more … to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:20-21). But yes, there are those who refuse the grace of God and are damned. Our Lord spoke of his coming in judgment when he says to the "goats": "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41).

Will those who are not saved suffer everlasting punishment? I do not think we know for sure whether they live forever apart from God or pass out of existence. What we do know is that those who are separated from God experience horrible regret and despair at their loss, whether in a final moment or continually.

What can I do to be sure I am saved? That was the very question the jailer in Philippi asked St. Paul. Paul’s answer was simple and liberating: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30).

Is that really all? Jesus said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." The first man introduced into Heaven did not do a thing to earn his way, but his cross of shame became a symbol of discipleship. True believers want to follow Jesus, even to the point of death.

What will it be like to live up in Heaven? Actually, I’m not sure we’re going up to heaven. Rather we will be raised from the dead to a new earth that is in close communion with heaven. Our prayer, "thy will be done, on earth as in heaven," will be fulfilled at last. No doubt there will be many marvelous new things, but it will be the same earth God made in the beginning, only transformed.

What about all the singing? Get used to it! Put on Handel’s Messiah and start practicing the Hallelujah chorus. If anything can get you in the mood for the First Advent or the Second, this will do it.

This appeared as an editorial in the December 1999 issue of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council. Copyright 2000 Stephen F. Noll. Posted 6 January 2000.

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