What is yet to come?–part three

In the days before his crucifixion, four of the apostles came to Jesus with questions about the Day of the Lord. They wanted to know when it would be, and what would be the sign of his appearing and the end of the age. In response, Jesus gave them seven signs—six negative and one positive. He mentioned false christs, wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution of the Church, and the gospel proclaimed to the whole world. Yet Jesus did not call these signs a countdown to the Day oi the Lord. Quite the opposite: he said, “See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Matthew 24:7).

Wars and earthquakes remind people that the world is under judgment. Wherever and whenever they happen, they prepare sinners for the Last Day, calling them to repent before it is too late. Storms and other natural disasters have the same purpose. The violence in nature is a reminder of the wrath of God. The violence of people in wars, terrorist attacks, crime, and other violence also reveals the wickedness of sin and the need for a Savior to come. And, because of that need, Jesus did come to redeem sinners and will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to make everything new.

Wars and earthquakes have happened all over the world in every century since Jesus spoke those words. They are not a countdown to the Day of the Lord; they serve as reminders that the Day of the Lord is coming. Jesus describes his appearing as sudden and unexpected. “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the appearing of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). “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 appearing of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:28-29).

What, then, of the great tribulation that is supposed to precede the Day of the Lord? Jesus does not omit the tribulation. He says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened….” (Matthew 24:29). So tribulation will precede his coming, but when does it begin, and for how long does it last?

The book of Revelation is filled with sevens. It is addressed to seven congregations. It includes a scroll with seven seals, the blowing of seven trumpets, and seven bowls of wrath. In literature like Revelation, numbers bear significance; they have special meanings. Seven is the number of completeness. There are seven days in a week because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Therefore, a letter addressed to seven congregations is intended for the complete Church in every place and every time. Likewise, the seven seals and seven trumpets and seven bowls of wrath speak of complete judgment on a sinful world.

But wait—there is more! The number seven is sometimes cut in half in Revelation, to three-and-a-half years, or forty-two months, or 1,260 days. This matches the words of Jesus about the tribulation: “If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:22). In other words, the complete suffering of the tribulation will be limited by God’s power and will not be as bad as it could have been.

The tribulation, then, is not a future set of events. It is felt in the wars, the earthquakes, the false teachers, and the persecution of the Church, all of which have been happening for twenty centuries, and all of which will continue to happen until the Day of the Lord. The execution of Stephen the deacon and of James the apostle were part of the tribulation. The false teachers whom Paul confronted were part of the tribulation. The siege of Jerusalem forty years after Christ’s resurrection was part of the tribulation. So are the present wars, earthquakes, and persecutions—they all are part of the Great Tribulation described in the Bible.

But another picture of this same time invokes a different number. Many Christians are confused about future history because they have failed to notice a hidden seven in Revelation. In that book, the Day of the Lord is described, not once, but seven times. After the first six descriptions, the book rewinds to current events and approaches the Day of the Lord from a different point of view. Only after the seventh depiction of the Day of the Lord does the book of Revelation begin describing the new creation that will begin on that Day.

So in Revelation 20 we find an angel coming down from heaven and binding the devil, pictured as a dragon, sealing him in a pit for a thousand years. During those thousand years, Christ rules the world, accompanied by his saints who are seated on thrones. At the end of the thousand years, the dragon is released from his prison, gathers the world in rebellion against Jesus, and is finally defeated. Then comes the judgment—the seventh and final presentation of the Day of the Lord in Revelation.

What does all this mean? The devil is defeated whenever the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared and believed. When his missionaries reported back to Jesus after they had gone out to preach, he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Satan’s fall is also pictured in Revelation 12. But the fall of Satan does not happen at one particular time in history. Satan is continually falling as the gospel continues to be taught and proclaimed everywhere in the world.

How, then, does Satan become unchained? Since the Word of God chains him, whenever that Word is rejected Satan is unchained. All those who mock the Bible and scorn its teachings are releasing the devil. Where the Bible is forgotten, where it is ignored, where it goes unused, Satan is free. But where the Bible is proclaimed, where it is trusted, where it is studied and shared, there Satan remains bound. There Christ rules, and his saints rule with him.

Did you think Jesus had to physically appear to rule the world from Jerusalem? He is in charge today. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus says (Matthew 28:18). “He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (I Corinthians 15:25). Even today Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). We are living in the millennium today, even though we also face tribulation today. But compare the numbers: tribulation is assigned seven years, but then it is cut in half. The reign of Christ is assigned a thousand years. The power and authority of the Lord far surpasses any trouble or hardship he permits in our lives today.

But do Christians rule the world with Christ? Indeed we do. First, he has given us the privilege of prayer. “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Second, he has given us the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). We have royal authority, not to resist Jesus or to defy his rule, but to rule along with him and in his name.

Sad to say, not everyone wants to rule with Jesus. Some prefer to defy his power. They choose their sins over their Savior. They reject a place in the eternal kingdom of God. I will have more to write about this in my next post. J.

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