Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Doctrine of the Last Things (1)

Written by Rev C.A. Schouls
The events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath must certainly be considered as Òsigns of the timesÓ. There is a tendency to consider such dramatic events as special signs marking Òthe last daysÓ without realizing that the entire period between the LordÕs ascension and return form that period of Òthe end times.Ó Without detracting in any way from the importance of September 11 (in any event, we are still far too close to it to be able to evaluate its importance!), we should have an eye for the ongoing work of the Lord in preparing for His return. It is hoped that this new series of studies will help us in this.

These articles are designed for and are being used as Bible study material. In case any should wish to use them for that, discussion questions are included with each.

May the Lord of heaven and earth bless this series and give to all who study His Word in spirit and in truth an increased awareness of the truth that He is the King set on ZionÕs hill in whose hand are all our ways.

Why study this subject? Is it not the cause of endless debates and division? What profit can we possibly derive from this topic? Should we study it at all?

Yes, we should and for the exact reasons mentioned above. It is the cause of endless debates and we should know what the Bible really teaches. The profit we can derive from this topic is none less than the comfort which the Lord wishes to give to His people who expect Him with great longing (1 Thess.4: 18, ÒWherefore, comfort one another with these wordsÓ--referring to Paul's statements about the Lord's second coming.)

When we study Òthe last thingsÓ (the technical term is ÒEschatologyÓ which means, literally Òstudy or knowledge of the end thingsÓ), we have to make some distinctions in order to make this vast field of study manageable. We all will experience Òthe last thingsÓ within a matter of some years, at most. When our life here comes to an end, we will face the Judge and enter heaven or hell, depending on whether this Judge has, earlier, become our Saviour and Redeemer. However, when all time has been filled, Jesus will come and publicly judge all men who ever lived and then usher in the fullness of kingdom of God. We, therefore, speak of ÒIndividual EschatologyÓ and of ÒGeneral Eschatology.Ó We shall deal with these topics in that order.

Why are there so many divergent views on this subject? The basic cause is the differences in method of Scripture interpretation. Especially they who hold to the pre-millennial view like to pride themselves on their literal interpretation of Scripture. Their view of Scripture, usually coupled to a strong devotion to the King James Version, may make some of us feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves in disagreement with them. But, are they always correct? Before we go any further, we should outline some basic principles of Scripture interpretation, particularly as this applies to this subject.

1. Although the Old and New Testaments stand in organic (living) connection with each other, the Old must always be approached from the viewpoint of the New. The New sheds light on the Old and not vice versa. What Christ taught us through the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is final, authoritative and infallible. Of course, that same Spirit inspired the Old Testament writers, but if any interpretation is needed, it is the New, which acts as a key to open the Old, not the other way around. We must let the apostles lead us to the prophets.

2. In 1 Corinthians 15:46 we read Ò...that was not first which is spiritual but that which is natural.Ó Everything in the Old Testament ÒeconomyÓ (= arrangement, order--a word to be preferred to dispensation, because of this word's association with a certain view on these truths), is typical, pointing to things to come--Òfor a testimony of those things which were to be spoken afterÓ (Heb.3: 5). Further, the law had Òa shadow of good things to comeÓ (Heb.10: 1), but the body is of Christ (Col.2: 17). Thus, many things were typical: the seed of Abraham, the land itself, the temple and its component parts, the Sabbath, etc. They all have their fulfilment in Christ. According to the principle laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:46, there are two realms in which prophecy is fulfilled: the realm of the natural and the realm of the spiritual. The opposite of natural is not literal but spiritual--an important distinction to remember!--and the fulfilment of prophecy is literal in either or both realms in which it is brought to pass. For example, the healing of the blind man in John 9 was a natural, physical healing; however, the rest of the chapter clearly shows there was a spiritual dimension to this and that the opening of his eyes typified the greater miracle of the opening of the eyes of the understanding unto salvation. In both cases, this is the literal working of the power of God, but it occurs in different realms.

3. Revelation is progressive; it moves ever forward. There is never a going back. There will be no restoration of Òdivers washings,Ó Òcarnal ordinances,Ó Òbeggarly elements,Ó the Òworldly sanctuaryÓ with sacrifices and priesthood, nor a raising again of Òthe middle wall of partitionÓ between Jew and Gentile (Heb.9: 1,10; Gal.4: 9; Eph.2: 14). Such carnal, Mosaic elements are gone forever. Those who look for a restoration of the temple (dispensational pre-millennialists) would wish to return to these things and turn the order around.

4. The Old Covenant, which was the only basis of the national relationship of Israel to God, was a temporary arrangement and has vanished, never to be restored. ÒIn that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish awayÓ (Heb.8: 13). The national relationship between God and Israel is gone. It was a covenant made after the flesh, involving blessings in the land of Canaan. It could not be eternal. The New Covenant is spiritual and eternal; national distinctions are wiped away. Christianity transcends, supersedes and fulfils Judaism. Apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is nothing special in the future of the Jews in national covenant relationship with God. It offers to them the same salvation it offers to the Gentiles: no more, no less. Of course, we realize that what has happened in Israel since 1948 is a wonderful development; nevertheless, the Bible seems to give no real indication that these are still ÒGod's covenant people,Ó in fact, they, as a nation, continue to be disobedient and continue to reject the Messiah.

5. The great object of all prophecy is Òto testify beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should followÓ (1 Pet.1: 10). Christ told the Jews to search the Scriptures for Òthey are they which testify of meÓ (Jn.5: 39). After his death, He rebukes his disciples for not having believed the prophets. ÒOught not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses, and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himselfÓ (Luke 24: 26, 27). It is clear from these and various other passages that the ultimate design of prophecy was to bear witness to Christ and his kingdom which is nowhere in the New Testament spoken of as an earthly, political, temporal kingdom of Israel. This basic fact is ignored by those who try to interpret prophecy with a view to Israel, its restoration and the physical being of Christ in Jerusalem for 1,000 years.

6a. The starting point for understanding all Scriptural prophecy concerning the last days is to understand the Old Testament expressions: Òthe latter days,Ó Òthe last days,Ó Òafterward,Ó and Òin that dayÓ (Gen. 49:1; Num.24: 14-17; Deut.4: 30; 31:29; Isa.2: 2; Joel 2:28; Amos 9:11; Micah 4:1). According to the Old Testament, time was divided into two eras: the present age and the last days or the messianic age. The prophets saw judgment looming over the nations but also the future coming of the Messiah. They were given to see some of His glory. They could not clearly distinguish between His first and second coming but they knew there would be no third stage beyond the last days.

b. The New Testament prophetic revelation builds directly on this Old Testament distinction (Acts 2:17; 15:15,16; Heb.1: 2; 2:5; 9:26; 1 Pet.1: 20,21; 1 Jn.2: 18). Peter clearly states, ÒThis is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.Ó He identifies these events as the fulfilment of prophecy. The time of Christ's first coming is called these last times. John refers to his day as the last time. In Hebrews 1 we read that God has spoken to us through His Son in these last days. We conclude, therefore, that the present time (from Pentecost to the return of Jesus) is Òthe last daysÓ of Old Testament prophecy. What the prophets spoke concerning the age of the Messiah is being fulfilled now.

c. The New Testament divides these last days into two parts: the present world and the world to come. (Mt.12: 32; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30, 20:34-36; Rom.8: 18, 38; 1 Cor.3: 22; Eph.1: 21; 2:2, 7; 1 Tim.4: 8; 6:17-19). This world is temporal, limited to the things of this life; the world to come is eternal, starting with the resurrection. There they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. The distinction between these two eras is clear; the present kingdom belongs to this world, the future kingdom, which is the kingdom fully developed and revealed, belongs to the world to come. One of the errors of dispensationalism is to confuse the present and the future world.

These principles we must always keep before us when dealing with the doctrine of the last things. Much of the confused predictive thinking in evangelical circles is due to a failure to observe these principles in a consistent manner.

The question may still be raised: What is the practical value of doing this type of study? What is the profit in it? Consider the following seven points:

1. This doctrine, which includes the blessings to be inherited here and hereafter, encourages men to live in such a way that they will receive this reward (see 1 Pet. 3: 8,9). This has nothing to do with works righteousness or earning salvation; it is right for the believer to seek the reward (Mt.19: 29; Heb.12: 1,2) provided that his purpose in doing this will be to glorify God (Rev.4: 10,11).

2. This doctrine, including the teaching of heaven's reward and hell's punishment, gives a stimulus and theme for Christian mission work (1 Pet.3: 10-12). This is clearly taught or implied in such passages as Psalm 2:12; Matthew 10:28; Acts 2:40; 17:30, 31; Romans 5:9, 2 Corinthians 5:20,21; Revelaiton 21:7.

3. Knowledge of this doctrine helps one to answer questioners about the faith and to silence revilers (1 Pet.3: 15,16)

4. Meditation on the truths of God stimulates prayer (1 Pet.4: 7). Without prayer, spiritual life cannot exist and we are helpless against the great enemy. Without prayer we cannot live a sanctified life or carry on the work of missions so that others may be rescued from the power of Satan to the praise of God.

5. Meditation on these truths strengthens love for one another (1 Pet.4: 8-10). Only those who love the fellowship here will partake of the fellowship there. This fellowship is that of the doctrine of the apostles and prophets (see Eph.2: 20-22; Ps.133; Mt.8: 11).

6. By earnestly considering these truths, our life is affected by them and, as a result, God is glorified. God's generosity in providing such wonderful good for His children in the world to come will inspire them to gratitude and adoration. This glorifies God.

7. The conviction that hell is real and that Satan purposes to destroy whom he can, is an incentive to steadfastness in the faith (1 Pet.5: 8,9).

Far from being impractical, these truths are of great value for this life. We would neglect them at our peril. We have, perhaps, shied away from them too much. Surely, everyone who loves the Lord Jesus has learned Òthat in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven...Ó (Lord's Day 19, Heidelberg Catechism).

1. Why would this area of doctrine not have received enough attention in our circles?

2. We must all think about the future. Is there any danger that a person would think too much about this, thereby neglecting his present duties? Is there an example of this in the New Testament? How can this danger be avoided?

3. Are differences of opinion on this subject wholesome or dangerous?

4. Why is it necessary to study both ÒIndividualÓ and ÒGeneral EschatologyÓ?

5. Sometimes people argue heatedly about these things without there being any wholesome influence on their daily lives. What might be their basic error?

6. How would you deal with a person who is disturbed about his spiritual state because he states that fear of hell and the coming judgment is his only reason for spiritual concern?

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