Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Doctrine of the Last Things (11) General Eschatology

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
In considering this vast topic, called "Eschatology" by theologians (literally "knowledge of the things at the end"), we must limit ourselves in many ways in order to get a handle on it. It is so broad and there are so many strange ideas floating around that we simply cannot deal with or even mention them all.

What we have done so far is to give an overview of "principles of interpretation" which are to guide us in understanding the Bible. Next, we dealt with "individual eschatology"--that is: what happens to us, as individual persons, when we die. Only after that did we look at "general eschatology" which deals with the end of all things. We noted that there were two major preliminary signs: 1. The "Gospel Age," 2. "Satan's 'Little Season'" which includes four sub signs: a. the Great Apostasy, b. the Great Tribulation, c. the Reign of antichrist, and d. other Concurrent signs.

We have dealt with the Great Apostasy and are now ready to continue with the other three signs. Before we do so, however, it is good to remind ourselves that we should avoid any speculation, any guesswork as to how far along we are. (Let Harold Camping be an example.) Also, we must remember that we are always living in the last days. The fulfilment of these signs is, therefore, not to be understood simply as one following upon another, but as things that characterize this age. There has always been apostasy--even as there has always been the victory of the gospel. The apostle John warned his spiritual children nearly 2,000 years ago, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists, whereby we know that it is the last time" (1 Jn.2: 18). The last days includes the entire period from the time the Lord ascended until the day of His return. With this in mind, we now turn our attention to the second of the four sub signs under the heading ÒSatanÕs Little SeasonÓ and consider:

The Great Tribulation
A. Not Limited to the Fall of Jerusalem

Matthew 24 and 25 are the chapters that speak of this great tribulation; they have caused much debate and confusion. Why does the Lord seem to speak of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the end of all things in such a way that the one seems to blend into the other? What does He mean? Is He referring to a period of anguish which will take place immediately before the end of the world or is He speaking exclusively of the troubles that were to happen to Jerusalem in the year 70 AD? Obviously, the disaster about to happen to Jerusalem was much on the Lord's mind. "Let them that be in Judea flee into the mountains" (vs.16) is clear proof of that. Some have tried to prove that this refers only to the destruction of Jerusalem but a careful reading of the passage will show this cannot be.

Note the following objections:

1. If we do take this as referring only to Jerusalem, then Jesus failed to answer the key part of the disciples' question: "What shall be the sign of thy coming and of the end of the world?" (vs.3)

2. The reference to the tribulation (vss.15 - 30) follows the reference to the worldwide preaching of the gospel. It is obvious that the gospel had not been preached worldwide by 70 AD. Jesus knew the gospel would not have been preached worldwide by that year.

3. Verses 29 and 30 make clear that this tribulation will be followed immediately by the Second Coming--the nations shall mourn when they see the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. Jesus knew this would not be in 70 AD.

4. Verse. 36 cannot mean that neither the angels nor He Himself did know about the impending fall of Jerusalem.

5. Matthew 24 and 25 form a unit. If the reference in 24:29-31 refers only to the fall of Jerusalem, then so must the similar reference in 25:31-46. In both cases the Son of Man appears in great glory and He is ready the judge the people before Him. However, 25:46 makes it clear this is the final judgment.

But why does the Lord Jesus speak of these two events, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Coming, in the same breath? In doing this, Jesus is speaking in "prophetic perspective" or "prophetic foreshortening." We see this used more often in Scripture. In fact, John's reference to "the last times" may be considered in the same light. Even as Isaiah (11, etc.) did not distinguish between the first and Second Coming of the Lord, so the Lord here is using the same technique. It is like looking at a distant mountain range. We see the mountains as one ridge, even though there are various chains of mountains, the one behind the other. From the distant perspective, we cannot see the valleys between them. To use another example: if you were to take a picture of a row of telephone poles and use a telephoto lens, the poles would appear to be very close together--the perspective has been foreshortened. Something similar takes place here in the word pictures that the Lord draws for us. The approaching destruction of Jerusalem, which He describes, is a type or picture of the tribulation at the end of history.

B. It Precedes the Second Coming
("parousia," "presence"or "coming")
Even among those who do believe that the reference is also to the end time, there is no agreement. Dispensationalists (heavily influenced by the misleading notes in the "Scofield Reference Bible") believe that the Tribulation will follow the "first" Second Coming of the Lord, after the "Rapture," when the church will already have been snatched away into the air. They see these days as applying only to the Jews and not to the church.

This explanation (which comes in many different forms--which makes it all rather confusing) is forced. A simple reading of the Bible shows it cannot be so. In Matthew 24 the Lord speaks of his coming and He uses the very word "parousia" to describe his coming at the end of the world. He uses the same word throughout the entire passage. When He speaks in verse 30 of "the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven" is it not logical that He uses the word in the same sense as everywhere else in this chapter? In verse 29 we are plainly told that before this coming there will be tribulation. The tribulation is a sign of the coming. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul tells us the same thing: the apostasy and the revelation of antichrist are before the Second Coming. In Revelation 11 we read of the two witnesses who are persecuted, overcome and killed during the three and a half days before their resurrection and glorious rapture--all this before the second coming. In Revelation 20 we read of Satan being loosed for a little while, before the Second Coming.

From all this we may conclude that the Great Apostasy, the Reign of antichrist and the Great Tribulation all refer to the same brief period which precedes the one and only second coming of the Lord Jesus upon the clouds of glory. The tribulation, which came upon Jerusalem, then is a picture of the trials at the end times, trials which will affect the entire church, God's people in the four corners of the earth (Rev.20: 8).

When will this all take place? Although we must carefully resist the temptation to guess at time frames, we may ask if we can see any of this developing around us now. Are parts of the Church universal entering into this period right now? Many believers live in countries controlled by anti-Christian powers: think especially of the various Muslim countries. Especially in the last number of years, persecution has increased, both in breadth and intensity, to levels we have not seen before.

Here we think of the pressures on believers in Asiatic and Middle Eastern countries. But also in the "free world" there are all kinds of increasing pressures on Christians: restrictions on radio broadcasts; legislation which makes it difficult to operate Christian schools in certain areas or to build new churches; pressure on earnest believers to join organizations whose practices are un- or anti-Christian. Of great concern right now is the matter of proposed legislation such as Bill C 415 (a private memberÕs bill before the Canadian Parliament which, if passed into law, will make speaking out against the sin of homosexual activity a crime).

It is not necessarily so that the Great Tribulation will come upon the entire world at the same time. There may well be some overlap between the closing of the Gospel Age and the start of this Tribulation period. It is also possible (although the developments in the world seem to make this unlikely) that there will still be a period of revival, of a flowering of the Gospel Age. We do not know. This we do know: our times are in God's hands and the Lord Jesus is coming soon.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1.
What evidences do you see that the time of the Great Tribulation is near?

2.How must the Church prepare itself for this Tribulation?

3.How will believers be comforted during this Tribulation?

4.How can we stimulate the longing for the coming of the Lord without, at the same time, becoming more and more fearful at the prospect of all these terrible things?

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