Understanding the End Times: Part 1
It’s no secret that Christians don’t all believe the same things about the end times. Some believe there will be a rapture before the second coming of Jesus. Others don’t. Some expect a literal seven-year tribulation to play out on earth before the second coming. Others don’t. Some presume the book of Revelation is to be read as a series of linear chronological events. Others don’t. Some expect a thousand year earthly kingdom (“millennium”) before the eternal state. Others don’t—believing instead that the kingdom is the current age and will transition into the eternal state when the messiah returns. Still others believe Jesus will return afteran earthly millennium.
These are not all the points of disagreement over understanding the end times. That these disagreements exist is obvious. Much less clear is whythey exist. The truth is that end times prophecy has intrinsic ambiguities. That may be a surprise but, as we’ll see, it’s demonstrably true. Because this is the case, no position on its elements and intricacies is self-evidently biblical. Every position and system looks elegant because skilled proponents of all the views have come up with ways to obscure the difficulties (i.e., explain the “problem passages” that exist for all of them). But as you’ll learn if you keep reading, the problems for all views of end times are more serious than scattered difficulties in this or that verse.
In this series we want to sketch out the reasons why this is the case. In each of the succeeding pages we’ll take a look at an ambiguity in end times prophecy. How Bible students decide to handle these ambiguities is what produces different positions on things like a rapture, the second coming (if they are indeed distinct things), the nature of the future earthly kingdom of God, and more. Decisions on how to interpret these ambiguities are ultimately driven by presuppositions one brings to the text. That isn’t sinister or ill-advised. It’s just the way things are.
Understanding the End Times: Israel and the Church
The first ambiguity to tackle concerns the relationship of Israel and the Church. Should they be viewed as utterly distinct entities (two separate “peoples of God” as it were), or does the Church replace Israel in God's program for the ages? If they are distinct, it would suggest that Israel might still have a role in the end times as a national entity. If the Church replaced Israel, then prophetic talk about the people of God may not be tied to national, political events. But would that circumstance actually preclude a prophetic role for national Israel—when it does indeed exist alongside the Church today?
These questions are no mere curiosities. For example, depending on how one parses the issue will dictate whether one expects a literal seven-year tribulation period and a literal millennium. If Israel is not distinct from the Church in terms of end times prophecy, then there is no need to posit a future literal tribulation that is (whole or in part) directed against Israel and not “Church age” believers. There is no need to expect a literal thousand-year reign from Jerusalem to complete the land promises given to Abraham.
The covenants are key to the relationship between Israel and the Church. An identification of the Church with Israel means that the Church—which of course includes Gentiles—would be the inheritor of the covenantal promises, most notably those made to Israel via Abraham and David. Is that possible? If so, how? This is where we need to begin.
Understanding the End Times: God’s Covenants with Israel
"God's people" in the first installment of the Bible (the Old Testament) was Israel. The nation was supernaturally raised up by God when he enabled Abraham and Sarah to have a child long after Sarah was able to conceive. God had entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham promising certain things (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 15:6-7). Abraham and his descendants:
1. Would become a nation whose population would be like the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven.
2. Would prosper and be a blessing to all who blessed them (or a curse to those who cursed them).
3. Would inherit a land promised to them ("from the Euphrates to the river of Egypt" - more on that in other installments).
God later promised David that his descendants should have an everlasting dynastic rule over the Promised Land and be known as his sons (2 Sam 7:1217; Psalm 89; Isa. 55).
These two covenants constituted God’s promises that Israel would become a nation, inhabit a specific land, and be ruled by a dynasty.
Embracing or rejecting the idea that the Church is the new Israel (conceptually – we’ll get to what points may or may not extend from that in future installments) depends on whether one believes the covenant promises in these two covenants have already been completely fulfilled or not. The fulfillment question in turn depends in part on whether the terms of these covenants were unconditional (no strings attached, in no way behavior-based) or conditional (“Israel must do XYZ for the covenant to be fulfilled”).
These questions raise others: If there were conditions, did Israel fail those conditions? If so, then was the covenant abandoned or handed to another entity (the Church)? If these covenants were fulfilled by Israel, why did Israel need a New Covenant (Jer 31)? If Israel did indeed need a new covenant with God, then does that mean the old covenants failed because Israel didn’t meet the conditions?
Jesus very clearly came to establish the New Covenant ("this is the new covenant in my blood" - see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:13; Heb 12:24). And the Spirit came upon the disciples and their converts after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2; see the book of Acts thereafter). The Spirit came upon and indwelt Gentiles as well as Jews. The church was therefore "circumcision neutral" -- it was not only Jews, but also Gentiles.
Consider the ramifications. Gentile inclusion in the New Covenant Jesus came to initiate and accomplish is a major theme in the book of Acts and New Testament theology. If this thing we call the Church was therefore the focal point and climax of the New Covenant, then what purpose is there for national Israel? Jesus must also be the Davidic ruler and fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. One might point out that Jesus will only physically reign when he returns. That’s true, but it misses the point. Jesus is either ruling and reigning now or he isn’t—and there is no other to come. Sitting down at the right hand of God means something—and it’s very doubtful that ruling has altogether nothing to do with it.
At this point the common objection is the Land—that the Church isn't a theocratic kingdom ruling over a land. On one level, this objection seems meaningful, but on another it doesn’t. The head of the Church is and he is lord of all—that is, every land mass. And since the Church is everywhere (and that was the point of the Great Commission), then one could argue (and many do) that the kingdom is the world, not just national Israel, and if Jesus is indeed ruling now, then the kingdom has come.
Hopefully you’ve already caught a glimpse of how complicated this all is. And this is but the tip of the iceberg, as we’ll see. The foundational questions that undergird any view of the end times—the kingdom, the Lord’s return, and various related ideas—are not at all self-evident.
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