Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
GOD’S FUTURE: BIBLICAL ESCHATOLOGY
Matthew 24:3644, 1 Corinthians 15:5157
This series is topics you proposed. As I scanned them, I saw that some were controversial. We will address them on Wednesdays. But: Does the biblical teaching on the future count as controversial? It could. Somehow it's become common to try to ascertain the time when Jesus returns and our history ends.
My favorite: A megaselling pamphlet: Eighty eight reasons why the rapture will be in 1988. There was also a sequel: Eighty nine reasons why it will happen in 1989. No sequel to that. Of course, the very concept of "rapture" is controversial. No comment.
But the Bible's teaching on the future is not fundamentally controversial. On the contrary, it inspires hope and gives direction. So let's consider what the Bible says about Jesus' return. I will reveal the first great thing we must know.
1. No one knows when Jesus will return.
Jesus said, "No one knows about that day [judgment day, the day Jesus returns] or hour, "not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (24:36). Since you don't know the hour, be ready every hour.
Matthew 24:38 Jesus illustrates his point with the flood. Year by year, Noah preached that judgment would come if his people didn't repent. He never predicted a time, never offered a sign such as "When you see heavy clouds, beware." Yet each time he lifted a hammer the message rang out. One day was the same as another. Noah's neighbors ate, drank and married. Then one day, without fresh warning,
judgment came and swept them away. Likewise, as the end of this age approaches, the world will roll on, its people unsuspecting that judgment is near.
Matthew 24:40 The second illustration comes from a farm. Picture two men working in a field, drinking from the same jug, wielding the same tools over the same ground. Or imagine two women working opposite sides of a hand mill. Each pulls the wheel halfway around the circle. Turn and rest, turn and rest, they form a perfect team as they laugh, talk and build calluses together. Then one is taken and the other left, as Christ's return reveals the spiritual division between them.
Jesus states the main point twice (24:42, 44): "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come… You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."
Notice that at the flood (24:39), the wicked were taken away, removed; Noah and his family were left to dwell on the earth. I agree with most scholars through the years that those who are "taken" are taken from the new heavens and earth which come down from heaven, as God's gift, when Jesus comes (Revelation 21:2). So those who are "left" get to stay in the new creation. Some popular teachers say the opposite, but if we follow Jesus it seems bad to be taken, but it is good to be left on earth when the trumpet sounds as Jesus comes.
Jesus did tell his first disciples to look for signs of judgment on Israel within a generation of his resurrection. That is when there would be wars, famine, false prophets and persecution. Finally, the Roman army would come, an abomination of desolation, because they carried images of the "divine" emperor whom they worshiped. Jesus told his disciples to "flee to the mountains" when the army came.
Just as Jesus said, Rome did invade Israel within nearly 40 years. And as Jesus said, Christians did flee and were spared. This is found earlier in Matthew 24.
That was an aside; above all Jesus tells his disciples again and again: Don't try to discern the time of Jesus' return. Don’t try to prepare for that day. Be ready to meet the Lord every day. How? By believing the gospel! By trusting Jesus alone. By loving him and walking with him daily.
2. How to be ready, how to stay ready
You understand that all of you will see, even encounter Jesus one day. George Clooney was in town recently. He went into a gym, got on a treadmill next to a friend of an acquaintance. The ecstasy she felt!
Now let's imagine Britney Spears or Bernie Madoff or Elie Wiesel came to the gym.
Some people would run toward Spears and Madoff – for different reasons. Others would run away.
Most people would look at Wiesel and see nothing but an old man, even though he surely is the most influential of the group. We can get excited about meeting one famous person and be indifferent to meeting another. Know this: Whether it excites you or not, we all will meet Jesus.
This leads to important questions: Do you want to meet him or not? If so, in what way? As you might want to meet Britney Spears or Bernie Madoff? To meet an enigma? Would you want to meet him as a charismatic, enigmatic peasant savant? As someone you admire: Clooney or Wiesel? Or for deeper reasons?
Faith and salvation, heaven and hell, raise lots of questions, even objections. But the great questions are simple: Do you call on Jesus as Lord and friend? Do you know him? Do you know he gave his life for you? Do you long for him and his appearance, for the trumpet sound and the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:52)?
When we meet Jesus, either he will say, "Come, you who are blessed… Come to me" (Matthew 25:34, 11:28), or "Depart from me." Who will depart? Those who don't want to know him. To be precise they don't know him as he is.
Where will they go? It has various names in the Bible: Gehenna, the burning trash heap outside Jerusalem; Hades, the lake of fire, the outer darkness. Above all, it is away from God, from all His blessings and peace. It is both a judgment and the sealing of a choice: they didn't want to come to Jesus as he is.
We can meet a villain and find him delightful. Or meet a hero and find him disappointing. People are who they are. Jesus is Lord. If we hope to come to him, we must come to him as he is, not as we want him to be.
Scripture says, "If you confess with your mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Romans 10:910).
Now suppose you know you have a crush on George Clooney and that you know you will work out next to him at the gym in March 2009. What will you do? You might prepare work out to be in excellent shape. Dress well, look your best. It's a sensible way to prepare to meet a movie star. But how do we prepare to meet Jesus?
You heard the first answer: Know him, believe in him, long for him. But Jesus tells us more in four parables that follow in Matthew 2425: The thief, the servant, the wedding and the talents.
The first parable compares Jesus to a thief who comes in the night. He is not like a robber or brigand, who wields a weapon and confronts his victim. Like a thief, he comes in stealth, when no one expects him.
Therefore – the main theme – because Jesus will come at an unknown time, we must always keep watch, always be ready for him to come.
“If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (24:4344).
How do we stay ready? The next parable says: Be a faithful servant. A master entrusts his household to a head servant as he goes away (24:4551).
If the servant is faithful, the master will be pleased and reward him when he returns. If he is wicked, he abuses his authority, domineers the other servants and plunders the house. But "the master of that servant will come on a day when he doesn't expect him [and] punish him" for his unfaithfulness (24:5051).
Be faithful, Jesus says, while the master is away.
The parable of the wedding (25:113) adds that Jesus will not return for a long time, longer than we may expect. In the story, a bridegroom is late for his wedding. Timing for weddings was loose in those
days, but this time the groom was very late. The maidens who planned to be part of the procession fell asleep.
The drowsiness means some grew weary of waiting. The wise are prepared to wait a long time; the others are not. We must watch for Christ as long as necessary. As time stretches out, we must endure.
The parable of the talents (25:1430) adds this: While the master is away, he entrusts his realm to stewards. Jesus says the kingdom is like a man who goes on a long journey and gives talents to his stewards. A "talent" was a large unit of silver, worth about a million dollars. The master gave his servants five talents, two talents or one talent, according to their ability. So Jesus entrusted varied talents to his followers.
In the story, two servants worked hard and doubled the master's wealth. The man who received five talents gained five more, and the man with two made two more. When he returned, the master blessed each one in exactly the same way:
He approved saying, "Well done." He praised them: "You good and faithful servant." He granted privileges: "I will put you in charge of many things." He welcomed them: "Enter into the joy of your master." (25:21). This scene provides vital clues to the character of God and heaven.
First, God is pleased by our faithfulness. He does not reward us on the basis of what we accomplish.
The master blesses both faithful servants in precisely the same way, even though one accomplished more than the other. As the prototype of a good father, the Lord does not demand that each child become a "star." Rather, he takes pleasure as we do our best according to our abilities.
Compare people to cars. The Lord makes many types of car: A sports car, a van, a commuter car. He is pleased when the Porsche takes a 90º turn at fifty miles per hour, he is pleased when the van hauls six kids to a soccer game, and he is pleased as a Prius hums to work getting fifty miles per gallon. A Porsche earns no special praise for going 120 miles per hour, nor does the Prius for getting fifty miles per gallon.
When each of us does what we are designed to do, he is pleased. The Lord is pleased not just when we do great things, but when we do what our abilities allow us to do. Notice that none of these parables tells when Christ returns. Rather they tell us how to be ready: Watch, believe, be faithful.
3. What it will be like?
Let's suppose that someone is ready; what is it like to meet the Lord? We can divide that question into two parts. For each person meets the Lord and his angels individually when he or she dies. Then, all meet him together on the last day.
When we die, each person meets the Lord. Hebrews 9:2728 says: "Just as man is appointed for man once to die, and after that [comes] judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await him."
This statement applies both to the Last Day of this age, but also to the last day of each human. In sum: At death, we face judgment. Jesus appears, not to atone for sin but to bring salvation to those who long for him.
I have spoken to doctors and nurses about this. Some care for people who are very sick, even as they're dying. The difference, they say, can be striking. The peace, calm, even joy of a believer; the anxiety, fear, even terror of others.
If we die, looking to Christ, then what? Theologians call it the intermediate state. We are "with Christ" (Philippians 1:23). As Jesus said to the brigand who was crucified next to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). We don't become angels, but we don't have bodies yet either. We are with the Lord and his people, his angels, and comforted (Luke 16:2225).
This holds until Jesus returns.
The last day Jesus will return with angels and trumpets, with power and glory, summoning all men to account for their lives. No one can miss that day.
“The sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky… They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Matthew 24:31).” The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:5354).
First, Jesus' return will be plainly visible. All will see him, attended by angels and trumpets "on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory" (24:30).
Second, his return will be universal. His angels "will gather his elect" from every corner of the world, wherever they may be (24:31).
Third, every nation, every person, will answer to Christ. Everyone will render an account to him, whatever their origin or religion. He is Lord of all. He "will reward each person according to what he has done" (16:27). We will even "give account on the day of judgment for every careless [idle] word (12:3637).
Everyone will fall short.
Take the talkative morning person. He calls out "HELLO, everyone! It's a beautiful morning. The sun is smiling, the flowers are dancing, and the coffee is delicious." Proverbs 27:14 says, "If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse."
Will we be judged for this? Not exactly. But God does evaluate: Do we indulge our moods or restrain them? Do we draw on imagination and empathy to hear our bellowed hello as the sleeper does? How does the morning person feel when the night owl is blasting music or movies at 1:00 a.m.?
This is not judgment by works. Rather, it is judgment according to the words and deeds that proceed from our hearts – a heart of faith and love.
New heavens and new earth.
A new day is coming. I must ask you first: Do you long for it? Now: if you soon graduate, or get married or start your dream job, I excuse you from this question. For everyone else: Do you long for the return of the Lord?
When World War II ended, the Europeans and Americans who had been held captive by the Japanese who occupied China, were set free – in principle. Businessmen, educators, missionaries, all had been secure because of the powers the British had in China. Some were privileged and all were eager to return to the old life.
One day, while the prisoners waited for safe transportation back home, a British colonel came and
addressed the British subjects. He had sober news. He told them, with all possible candor, of the new reality in China.
In the years of war, the small businesses many built had been looted, wrecked. Everything of value had been seized; there was no hope of restoration or reparations. Further, the larger firms had withdrawn from China. He continued:
“Those of you whose roots lie in China alone had best resign yourselves to the loss of the old life. We cannot force you to leave China, but the future is bleak. Our advice is to give up and find what refuge you can in England, Australia [or wherever] British life continues. An era has ended and with it your past lives have ended. I am sorry, but these are the facts.”
People listened and trembled. One asked where he could go: "My entire life was spent in Northern China. When that is taken from me, I have no place on earth."
Life is precarious. Jobs, relationships, homes, come and go. We invite terrible loss and desperation if we say, "I know nothing but my life in America" or China or Denmark. We should long for the next world. We should know that it is our final home. An Englishman living in China dwells in one place, but most truly belongs in another. So it is for us. We live here, but we are citizens of another place, servants of another king.
So it is with this life and the next. Some people think the point of Christianity is to go to heaven when you die. The Bible teaches something far richer. God plans and promises to set all creation right. Today, heaven and earth overlap fitfully and partially. We never get the whole picture.
But when Jesus returns, the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9, Habakkuk 2:14). The drama of redemption does not end with the salvation of souls (important as that is) taken to heaven, free from our mortal bodies. No, the new Jerusalem will come down from heaven with God.
A loud voice will say, "Now the dwelling of God is with men... They will be his people, and God himself will be with them.... He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death… or crying or pain, for the old order… has passed away" (Revelation 21:24).
We will not be angels. Let me say plainly: When we die, we do not become angels. No, we become glorified humans, all we were designed to be from the beginning. It's never been our destiny to become a different creature – an angel or disembodied spirit. Angels are spirits – "ministering spirits" or rebels.
Faithful angels know the Lord, but not as redeemer. Good angels are awesome to behold and supremely noble, but it is not our destiny to become angels.
Say it this way: I'm in my fifties; Like many of my friends, I give thanks that I can run, throw and play pretty hard. Still, I miss my youth. At the gym, I see a group of twenty to twentyfive year olds playing basketball. They look pretty good; the passion to play stirs. But it's been several years since I played competitively, so I watch. I think: my college intramural team would run them off the court. What do people past forty or fifty want? Do we long to become angels, liberated from this weary, fading body?
No, we long to be young again. That seems impossible, absurd. Time moves the other way. But we will be young again. Not angels, but young men and women – strong, vibrant, clear of mind.
When believers die, we are "with the Lord" and without bodies in an interim period. But when the Lord returns and this life ends, Jesus will restore all things. Then "the righteous will shine like the sun."
One hundred years ago a pastor wrote a song to celebrate the beauty of creation and God's place in it.
The third stanza has several versions. This says it best.
This is my Father's world. O let me ne'er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. This is my Father's world: The battle is not done.
Jesus who died shall be satisfied. And heaven and earth be one.
What will that be like? A little boy once asked his mother, "Mommy, will there be pears in heaven?" The wise mother answered, "Honey if you want pears, there will be pears." Her answer is perfect because everythingwe want will be there. Every desire will be fulfilled because every desire will be a good desire and all will be whole.
This is our hope. It is the hope of prisoners, soldiers. It is the hope graduating students know as graduation nears. It is also the wellfounded hope of the Christian. The goal is not to know when this will happen, but to be ready for it whenever that may be. How? By trusting Jesus, knowing him – by Scripture and by prayer.
Note sources: my commentary on Matthew, chapters 8388,
New Testament; Wright, Simply Christian;
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology; R. Roberts, Spiritual Emotions.