Sunday, January 15, 2012

THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST: Paper Presented at the Divine Commonwealth Conference in Abuja, NIgeria

Paper presented at The Divine Commonwealth Conference, Abuja, Nigeria 7-11 Nov 2011.

Abstract
This paper focusses on end-time prophecy as it is reflected in the teaching of the Bible and its contemporary relevance and application in the church and society. In particular, the paper examines the message of St. Paul in the two letters to the Thessalonians, as those letters appear in the broader Pauline corpus of writings and indeed their context within the canon of Holy Scripture.St. Paul’s word to the Thessalonians, like that of the wider New Testament teaching, makes clear the reality of the promise that the Lord Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. At the same time, Paul counsels Christians on how they are to regard their personal future whether they die in the Lord or “meet Him in the air” at the close of this age. He goes on to warn them not to attempt to calculate the time of Christ’s coming and in particular not to disregard their daily work and obligations, in a foolish anticipation that the end is at hand.

Teaching about the end-time is an important part of the biblical Gospel, and embarrassment about this doctrine is one sign of those who have fallen away from that Gospel, as can be seen in many Western churches. However, it is also true that some evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have exalted this teaching to a place above that which is accorded by St. Paul and the New Testament. In doing this, they have distorted the place of Christians in the church and society during this age and have also discredited the truth by speculative time-tables. A perspective which accords with the Anglican understanding of the Bible in the Church provides a strong corrective both to those who have lost confidence in His Coming and those who are over-confident that they know when that Coming will be.

***

I began my pastoral work forty years ago in a church that was experiencing revival. I remember in particular a week-long preaching mission by the well-known Pentecostal leader Derek Prince. Dr. Prince drew good crowds when he spoke about coming to faith in Jesus and walking the Christian walk, but the church was packed to overflowing : when he addressed two other topics: casting out demons and the Rapture of believers in the last days. I suspect there has always been an eager audience of those who would wish to trample down Satan under their feet and to prepare for meeting Jesus Christ in the air.

My topic today is the latter of these teachings, which speaks of the second coming of Christ and the end-times. I shall address it in three parts: An Anglican Approach to the Doctrine, the Substance of the Doctrine, and the Relevance and Application of the Doctrine.

An Anglican Approach to the Doctrine

Belief that “this same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11) has been part of the Church’s basic confession from Pentecost onward. Indeed, we regularly recite in the Creed: “He shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.”The Church’s creeds and confessions focus on those agreed-upon and hence “catholic” teachings that accord with Scripture. While there have been many interpretations of the details of the Second Coming, few there are who deny it. Because of this basic agreement, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Anglicanism make no additional comments beyond the Creeds. Given some modern denials of this doctrine by scholars and bishops in the West, the recent Jerusalem Declaration of the Global Anglican Future Conference did see the importance of reasserting the reality of the Second Coming. It reads:
14. We rejoice at the prospect of Jesus’ coming again in glory, and while we await this final event of history, we praise him for the way he builds up his church through his Spirit by miraculously changing lives.
Let me note that this brief clause includes what theologians refer to as the “already/not yet” character of the coming Kingdom: Jesus, Risen and Ascended, is building up His Kingdom, the Divine Commonwealth, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, even as He prepares to bring in the Kingdom as the final act of history.
In my view, the truth of Christ’s Second Coming and the reality of “the last things” – called eschatology and usually referring to death, judgement, heaven and hell – are essentials of Christian faith. There are also secondary matters of eschatology about which Scripture speaks obliquely and opaquely. Though these other matters may seem secondary to most Christians, they have historically caused a great deal of controversy and even bitterness among believers. The solution to such differences is not to avoid them but to search the Scriptures for guidance, not only on the substance of the last things but on the proper way to live for those who “love His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
Searching the Scriptures in turn leads us to the matter of biblical interpretation. How are we to understand the statements of the Bible about things far beyond our human imagination about the beginning and end of all things? Some people are suspicious of calling for biblical interpretation altogether. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” is their mantra.
It is, however, characteristic of the Anglican middle way to stand on the authority of Scripture as God’s Word written while maintaining focus on essentials with modesty and openness to its interpretation. Hence Article VI reads:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
In a similar vein, the classic Anglican theologian Richard Hooker writes:
what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit [belief] and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth...
Hooker’s “tripod” of Scripture, reason and tradition is often cited by liberals as an excuse to make of Scripture a “wax nose” that can be bent whichever way they wish to justify their positions.1 This, however, is a misreading of Hooker and the Anglican way. Instead, he commends the primary authority of the “plain sense” of the biblical text in matters of faith and obedience; secondarily, he sees “right reason,” i.e., the mind created in God’s image and led by the Spirit as an important instrument in “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Finally, he argues for hermeneutical modesty in supposing that “the Church,” i.e., the heritage of earlier biblical exegetes, should guide the current exegesis.
The tradition of interpretation is not merely external to Scripture but is internal in what the late Professor Brevard Childs calls “canonical shaping.” Prof. Childs argues that the biblical authors themselves understood that their particular “scripture” was an inspired thread of a larger fabric, “the Holy Scriptures.” Hence interpreters must recognize and respect any particular text in the context of the whole Bible and especially in the context of the Bible as a two-testament work. Once again, this approach is clear in Article VI, which links “proof” texts with consistent meaning (“neither may [the Church] so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”). Likewise, Article VII lists the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as the overall literary context in which such texts are to be understood.

The Substance of the Doctrine

My focus in this paper will be on St. Paul’s two Letters to the Church at Thessalonica. Why should we turn to them to understand better the apostolic teaching on the end-times? One obvious reason, of course, is that they contain specific texts on the subject. But it goes a bit further than this. In these two Letters, Paul himself chooses to address the subject, if not systematically then at least centrally and repeatedly. By addressing diverse topics that appeared in the apostolic church, the various writings in the New Testament reveal the “manifold wisdom” of God and lay the foundation for the creeds and doctrine of the Church.

Let me attempt a broad-brush survey of the New Testament to show how this works. In the Gospels, we find the narrative life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the heart and centre of God’s new act of salvation. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the spread of the Gospel though the apostles by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Epistles we find apostolic teaching about Christian faith and life. This teaching is not presented systematically, as in John Calvin’s Institutes, but occasionally as the need arises in the life of the early church. The nature and full implications of justification by faith, for instance, are necessitated by the Judaizers in Galatia who said faith and law could be dual pillars of identity in Christ. Questions of Christian morality were answered as they arose at Corinth.

In the case of the Thessalonian letters, the primary issue has to do with the proper teaching regarding the Coming of Christ and the end-times. It is clear from Paul’s repeated reference to his earlier teaching that some instruction about Christ’s Coming and the end-time was part of basic Christian doctrine or catechesis received at conversion and baptism. To look at a parallel example from his first Letter to Corinth, Paul had already instructed the Corinthians about the resurrection of the dead but had to go back over it with them and expand it in chapter 15. With the Thessalonians, it appears Paul had to repeat himself twice on the subject of the end-times: hence the two consecutive letters written not too far apart in time.

Now none of the “dogmas” of apostles stand in splendid isolation from the practical question for Christians of “how now shall we live.” Looking at the situation in Thessalonica, we can identify several key features of the community that led to the questions about eschatology. Paul himself describes the Thessalonian church in this way: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). From this we learn that a) they were an apostolic church, recognizing St. Paul as their founding father and seeking to “imitate” his example and teaching; b) they were an afflicted church under regular persecution from the day Paul arrived and thereafter (cf. Acts 17:1-7); and c) they were a charismatic church, experiencing, even in the midst of affliction, supernatural joy through the Holy Spirit. They were not too different from the church in Philadelphia addressed by John the Divine years later (Revelation 3:7-13). As in the case of Philadelphia, the primary message to the Thessalonians is: “I am coming soon; hold fast to what you have, so that no one can seize your crown.”

It is an irony of our human nature, I think, that truth often bears like a coin an opposite or “flip” side, and this flip side can distort and finally destroy the plain truth. So while the assurance “Jesus is coming soon” seems clear enough, it can bring and did bring anxieties and illusions that threatened the very life of the church at Thessalonica. The anxieties clustered around the “soon” part of Christ’s Coming. There were those whose faith was being tested, even unto death, who prayed with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord!” There were others who wondered whether those who had died before the End might fail to see the Last Day. The illusions clustered around a spirit-filled conviction that the Day of the Lord had already come. While this conviction wore a victorious face, it also bred a disdain for everyday acts of work and love.

So let us now turn to key texts in which Paul addresses these anxieties and illusions:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
The church in Thessalonica had existed only a few months by the time Paul wrote this. While it is possible that in that short time someone there had died of natural causes, it is equally possible that the persecution that had begun on Paul’s visit had continued and some believers had been martyred for their faith. The belief that the martyrs will stand before the throne may seem obvious to us who look back with the Book of Revelation in hand and from the perspective of two thousand year honour roll of that noble army, but for the Thessalonians it is a first-time crisis: how do we regard those who die before the End comes? This crisis may have been made worse if they had interpreted Paul’s teaching on the Second Coming to mean that it would come immediately or even that it had already come and was an event of the past. Distracted by grief, they had expected that the Day of the Lord would arrive before any had died.

Paul’s pastoral reply focusses on the key Christian virtue of hope. You may grieve for the departed, he says, as is humanly natural, but not as those who have no hope.2 The ancient world had no hope for the dead beyond the mythical shades in Hades or the philosopher’s immortality of the soul. The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection – to the academics at Athens and to the tradesmen at Corinth – turned that world upside down (Acts 17:6). For Paul Jesus’ Resurrection is the “first-fruit of those who sleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), and the general resurrection will necessarily follow, at which time God will judge the world and all men through Jesus (Acts 18:31).

Paul is not interested in explaining in detail the state of those who have fallen asleep, but the Church has generally understood that the souls of the departed live on, whether fully conscious or “asleep” in the presence of God, until their bodies are reconstituted and rejoined with their souls at the resurrection (cf. Luke 16:20-25; 23:43; Revelation 6:9; 20:4). What is important for Paul is the truth that no benefit of Christ’s death and resurrection will be withheld from those who die before His Second Coming. Paul now supplements his basic teaching “by a word from the Lord” and presents a vision of the dead and those still alive rising up together to meet the Lord Jesus when He comes in glory. The so-called “rapture” – being caught up to meet the Lord in mid-air – requires a transformation of the mortal body into immortality – how else could we fly? - but it is not so much that we are whisked into heaven, but rather that we rush to welcome Christ as He returns to His kingdom on earth.3 Paul says nothing about the state of non-Christians during this event, but it is implied that they will be judged and have no part of this kingdom. Neither does he say anything about a thousand-year reign, though he does speak obliquely elsewhere of an interim reign of Christ, “when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1Corinthians 15:24). What is important in Paul’s view is that all believers know for sure that “we will always be with the Lord.” What more can we possibly ask than to live eternally in the presence and glory of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Paul now moves from the anxieties over those who have died to the illusions of those who think the Day has already come.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11)
He begins by recalling Jesus’ own teaching about watchfulness:
“But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39-40)
Jesus and Paul are both drawing on a chain of Old Testament prophecies to the effect that the Day of the Lord will come suddenly (Amos 5:18-20). Unlike the Prophets, who foresee a Day of Darkness, Paul sees the Day as one of Light and the new people of God not being judged but redeemed because they have already entered by faith into the Kingdom of Light.

Paul moves on from our status to our obligations. As we are children of light, we should not act like those who spend their nights in slothful slumber or in wanton drunkenness. He had earlier reminded his converts that Christians put away sexual immorality and that they love one another by aspiring to live quietly, minding their own affairs and working with their hands (1 Thessalonians 4:2-12). Unlike the Corinthians, the softer sins of the flesh were not the besetting problem at Thessalonica, and Paul does not mention them again in his second follow-up letter. Idleness, however, is another matter. His first word to them is what we might call positive reinforcement. Be what you are, children of light, Paul says, and encourage one another to live up to your calling! He leaves the matter to them in hopes that they will self-correct.

Unfortunately, Paul’s first mild exhortation was not enough, as Timothy reported back after another visit to the city. Indeed the germs of idleness had sprung up into weeds. To make it worse, the slackers were claiming that their inactivity was due to Paul’s own teaching. So he writes a second letter on this subject, rebuking the idlers more openly.
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 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. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2)
The main error, Paul says, is the idea that the Day of the Lord has already come. Possibly this idea was circulated by way of prophecy. We know that prophecy was a vital feature of worship in the apostolic churches, and prophecy often looks to future events. Prophets speak with great authority from the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes prophets reapply existing teaching, and so perhaps a prophet twisted Paul’s teaching on the Coming of Christ. At Corinth, Paul explains at some length that while prophecy is preferable to inarticulate utterances in tongues, even prophecy is to be judged by others with the gift of discernment, and that the guiding rule for using all gifts is the rule of love (1 Corinthians 14:12-33). Paul’s guidance to the Thessalonians is briefer but much the same: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).

Since some had apparently abused his authority, Paul now puts his teaching down in writing, and signs the letter with his own hand (2 Thessalonians 3:14-17). In the process, he expands his original catechesis with more detail on the events of the End-time.
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, 4 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. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only the Restrainer will continue until he is out of the way. 8 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. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false… (2 Thessalonians 2:4-11)
Paul clarified one matter – that the Day has not come – but he added some other matters that are rather obscure to us in our day. Who is the “Man of lawlessness” (verse 3)4, also known as the “Son of Destruction” and the “Lawless One” (verse 9)? What is the “mystery of lawlessness” (verse 7)? Who is the “Restrainer” (verse 7)? While the detailed description of these forces is obscure, the overall depiction of them and their activity is reasonably certain. The “Man of Lawlessness” is agent or incarnation of Satan. Paul describes his activity primarily in religious terms as an anti-Christ: making himself the object of false worship and bearer of a false gospel. He is also the anti-Spirit, performing bogus miracles and deluding unbelievers.

The “Restrainer” is the force of worldly Government, sometimes identified in the New Testament as “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 3:10). Government, though part of the fallen world order, is established by God to restrain evil (Romans 13:1-4). The “mystery of lawlessness” is the spiritual battle of law and order with lawlessness and destruction. Government is corruptible and ultimately subject to the Prince of this world. Hence Christians, while honouring Caesar, must not put our final trust in him and must be prepared to contend against him when he acts as an agent of evil (Ephesians 6:12).

Paul now outlines the timetable of the end-time in order to refute those who have used his name in promoting the idea that the End has already come. On the contrary, Paul says, the End cannot come until the final battle between law and lawlessness, order and chaos, has occurred. In personal terms, we know that Paul was frequently wronged by the civil authorities; at the same time, Paul proclaimed his citizenship in the Roman commonwealth and finally exercised his right to appeal his case to Caesar. Clearly he believed the church was living in the middle of history: the spiritual battle was engaged, but the final victory had not yet been fought and won.

Having clarified and expanded emphatically his original teaching on the end-time, Paul exhorts the believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).5

Next Paul goes on to warn explicitly against idleness:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14)
Let me make two comments about this warning. The first is that Paul advocates a kind of “excommunication” for those who refuse to work. It is not full excommunication from the church or the Communion table; rather, it is excommunication from charity. It seems likely that the idle folks at Thessalonica were also appearing to be so super-spiritual that they could demand alms from others. They were, as the saying goes, so heavenly-minded as to be of no earthly good. They were not the real poor, but voluntary mendicants, like some of the friars who flooded Europe in the late middle ages. Sorry, Paul says, but we don’t give to able-bodied beggars.

My second point is that Paul does not put full-time church workers – the clergy of his day – in the category of the idle. He makes the point frequently that he chose to work for his keep to make certain that the Gospel he preached was itself free to all. However, he also says that it is his right to be supported, a right that he has voluntarily renounced. He makes clear to the Corinthians that it is the Lord Jesus’ own command that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). I think he implies the same instruction to the Thessalonians, saying:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
I have seen plenty of lazy clergy in my day, and they fill the pages of English novels, and I suspect Paul would not have kind words for them. But I have also seen hard-working clergy, particularly parish priests, who have not received the honour or the pay which they deserve from their congregations or from their superiors in the hierarchy.
In his two letters to the Thessalonians Paul has clarified a doctrine – the Second Coming of Christ – and issued a moral command – that none should use the expectation of the End as an excuse not to work.
Before I conclude, let me return to my image of the whole cloth of Scripture with many threads. I said that the Thessalonian letters represent the most direct teaching on the Second Coming. One other book presents the Second Coming in the form of a prophetic vision: the Revelation to John. In my opinion, John’s vision, though vastly expanded from Paul’s references, follows the same basic substance:
  • Christ is certainly coming soon.
  • A spiritual battle is engaged even now between the forces of God and of Satan, the Dragon, during which Christians will be killed for their testimony to Jesus.
  • The tipping point of the battle will come when the Dragon overwhelms the powers of Government and Religion, turning them into the Beast and the False Prophet.
  • When the whole world has succumbed to the power of the Satanic Trinity, Christ, the Rider on the white horse, will come and defeat him and his minions.
  • There will follow an interim period when all those who have lost their lives will be restored to earth and reign with Christ for a thousand years.6
  • Then will follow the final resurrection, last judgement, and the transformation of the created order, the New Heaven and New Earth.
Relevance and Application of the Doctrine

I am not sure how the doctrine of the Second Coming of Christ is taught and believed in the Church of Nigeria. I suspect that the classic view of the Creed is shared by most Christians. You should be grateful for this consensus: it is not true for Western Christians and Anglicans. Take a bishop like John Spong, the Episcopal bishop who commented at Lambeth 1998 that African Anglicans held primitive beliefs about the Bible because they were so recently come in from the forest. Anyway, here he is attacking the straw man: Jesus the space alien:
We need to look at Jesus not as a divine invader from outer space, but as a human life that is so completely full, he becomes a channel through which all of what we call God can flow. And he can flow in you and me.
And again:
So the mythical religious language of a finished creation, the fall, original sin and the need for a rescuing God becomes language out of touch with our present perception of reality. The loss of this mythical framework has also rendered meaningless the normative portrait of Jesus as the divine rescuer, and the story of the cross as the sacrifice designed to pay the price of sin. Those concepts are rapidly becoming all but nonsensical.
And here he is on hell:
There is no hell; hell is an invention of the church. The church hates like hell to give up hell because hell is a means of controlling the hoi polloi and the church is in the business of controlling people!
Bishop Spong is a huckster of religious modernism. At the same time he is a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal Church. Many so-called moderates in the Church would claim to have a more nuanced position on Christ’s return, but nuance is a dodge and when push comes to shove, they too have lost the anchor of hope that Paul and the New Testament hold out to all who believe. Let it be clearly stated: it is because of the wholesale denial of the Christian faith – not just homosexuality – that many of us have left the Episcopal Church.

There is a second danger in eschatological thinking, I think, which may be closer to the situation Paul addressed and more pertinent in Africa. Often, teaching on the End-time is part and parcel of the “health-and-wealth Gospel,” which says “Christ has suffered so that I might prosper” and “God wants to give you anything you want if you have faith enough to ask.” One hears this message mainly from Pentecostal evangelists, but it can also crop up in the traditional churches. What it has in common with Thessalonica is this: it presumes that the realities of the End-time are already in full effect, where there will be no more weeping or poverty or death. It also involves teaching that the Rapture is coming at a set time and will whisk believers away from the troubles that beset them. I would not say that people who hold this view are necessarily lazy, but I have seen super-religious people spend a lot more time attending prayer meetings and fellowships than working with their hands or minds.

The health-and-wealth Gospel is especially destructive when it comes to facing death. Early in my ministry I was called to the bedside of a man dying of cancer. He and his wife were being ministered to by a Pentecostal pastor who assured them that if they had enough faith, the man would be healed. He even pretended to see marked improvement in the man’s condition, when in fact he was sinking lower by the day. Finally, the man died. The pastor did not say anything, the man departed ill-prepared for death and the wife went away bitter because she felt God had let them down.
St. Paul, through the Scripture, would instruct us today that we who have believed in Christ are chosen from all eternity and that we have assurance of being with Him for all eternity whether we die or whether we are alive at His Coming. The Second Coming of Christ is a “comfortable” doctrine of the Church to be believed even in the midst of trouble; it is also an event in cosmic history to be anticipated with joy and celebrated in hymns of praise. So I leave you with these majestic verses of faith and hope from the popular hymn by Daniel Whittle:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But I know Whom I have believ├Ęd,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

Notes
1 J. V. Langmead Casserly wrote in Toward a Theology of History (London. 1965) p. 116: “Modern biblical scholarship has proved itself so insipid and unstimulating. We are confronted with the paradox of a way of studying the word of God out of which no word of God ever seems to come, with an imposing modern knowledge of the Bible which seems quite incapable of saying anything biblical or thinking biblically.”

2 Note Paul’s own anticipated grief over Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:27.

3 Greeting a returning conqueror is a feature of Roman “triumphal processions,” but Romans were not the only ones to do so. Think of the crowd greeting the Coming King on Palm Sunday.

4 Note some texts say “man of sin,” but this almost certainly is a scribal error.

5 Permit me a detour here regarding the Church of Nigeria. I have observed that the Church is remarkably faithful to its founding traditions, which can be seen in the guilds, the hymns, even the smart attire. At a critical moment in the Lambeth 1998 Human Sexuality debate, Bishop Bishop Peter Adebiyi of Nigeria held up a Bible and said:
The CMS [Church Missionary Society] brought Christianity to Western Africa about 150 years ago. And when the CMS came, they brought the Bible, telling us that what they believe is what has come from the word of God. And so, our forefathers meticulously accepted the Christian faith and religion that was tied to the word of God and the Scriptures. Therefore, we accept the Scripture as the most authentic thing we should follow, rather than our intelligence or the way we are naturalistically.
6 I think there are two valid interpretations of the millennium. Pre-millenialists see the millennium as an historical period prior to the last judgement. Amillenialists see the thousand years as a symbol of God’s restoring the Adamic lifespan to the faithful who were cut off before their time. Post-millenialism, in my opinion, confuses the “already” aspect of eschatology with the “not yet.” At its worst, post-millenialism leads to a smugness that things are getting better and better, an idea that motivated turn of the century progressivism prior to the Great War. “Dispensationalism,” which derives from Charles Nelson Darby and is widespread in Pentecostal and fundamentalist circles, is pre-millenial in form but shares the smugness in assuming Christians will avoid the tribulations of the end-time through rapture to meet the Lord in the air, leaving cars to crash and breakfast burning on the cooker.

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