Thursday, August 7, 2008

Edouard and eschotology

by John D Ramsey

Cara was at bat this week, staring down Tropical Storm Edouard. If NOAA’s predictions had been correct, she should have been driving to work as the storm wreaked havoc around her. This worried her dad, and he coached her. As it turns out, the storm curved right for a ball off the outside corner. That assessment assumes a left-handed batter, which approximates Cara’s location to the plate . . . I mean . . . predicted landfall. From her perspective, though, it was not even close. Her heightened anticipation resulted in an early swing; strike one! She was not happy with me because she spent an extra sixteen hours at work in an already excruciating week. In my defense, I can only say that I asked her to check into a hotel near her place of employment. I did not ask her to pick up extra shifts. The girl works too hard already.

When the big kids were little, I asked them, “Where is the safest place to be during a California earthquake.” The answer was, of course, “Kansas.” One of the safest places to be during a hurricane is apparently right where NOAA first says it will come ashore.

Why do you suppose God made weather to be so predictably unpredictable? There are still patterns we observe; we just cannot apply them with precision. NOAA was not wrong; Edouard hit Texas. It just did not make landfall anywhere near Cara. Such is the science of meteorology.

Weather patterns are reliable only to a point, and that is probably why Jesus used them in this analogy. He told the Pharisees and Sadducees,

When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.

Matthew 16:2-4 (NIV)

Weather is inherently unpredictable, yet Jesus compares weather prediction with understanding the signs of the times. He implied that the Pharisees and Sadducees that they were ignoring the signs he had already given them. Jesus would give them only one more sign: the sign of Jonah.

The sign of Jonah of which Jesus was speaking was that “the Son of Man [would] be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Matthew 12:40 (NIV) Interestingly, the Pharisees and Sadducees did not believe Jesus before the resurrection, and many Evangelicals still do not believe him in afterwards. Most Bible-believing churches that I have attended teach that Jesus spent approximately a day and a half in the heart of the earth (approximately 36 to 40 hours), but nowhere near three days and three nights that he said that he would. We excuse ourselves by saying that “three days and three nights” is a Hebraism meaning more than a day, less than a week, but the Hebrews in Matthew 27:62-66 did not understand it to be a Hebraism. Of course, they did not study Hebrew in an Evangelical seminary – nor did I.

To superimpose our traditions upon the historical record, we must discount or dismiss the actual words of Jesus. How wise does this make us? Considering this, how qualified can we possibly be to interpret the signs of our times? Perhaps we are not very qualified at all. Perhaps we are no more enlightened to the signs of our time than were the Pharisees and Sadducees to their age. Remember that we cannot accurately predict the weather. Do we really comprehend the spiritual signs of our time? Maybe only to a point.

In June of 1967, I spent a lot of time out in the backyard of our house in Ruskin Heights, looking skyward. Israel was at war with its neighbors and some well-meaning adult had told me that this meant that Jesus was coming back – immediately. I probably brushed my teeth and combed my hair more that week than in any other time during my childhood. Jesus did not come back in 1967. There have been other predictions since then, but I have learned to pay little attention to them.

In Matthew 24, Jesus gave us signs regarding his coming again. Do we consider ourselves able to discern them fully? Paul warned the Thessalonians not to be alarmed or deceived by reports concerning the coming of the Lord. Paul said that the man of lawlessness would first reveal himself, “[he] sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” 2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV). I suggest that this correlates with Jesus’ words, “When you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Matthew 24:15 (NIV) Some take this to mean that the day has already occurred in 70 AD. This is not likely considering Jesus’ other prophecies in Matthew 24 and John’s prophecies in Revelation that were recorded after the destruction of the temple. Other people insist that Israel must reinstitute temple worship before the Lord will return. This is possible, yet it is tightly coupled to the assumed meaning of the words “temple” and “holy place”. Might they not refer to something else? How can we be sure of our own assumptions? Moreover, how can we be sure of someone else's assumptions?

I can assert that Matthew 24:15 and 2 Thessalonians 2:4 record the same event, but I cannot tell you when it will happen or what it will look like. Jesus says that following this event “will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now – and never to be equaled again.” Matthew 24:21 (NIV) Jesus furthermore says that,

Immediately after the distress of those days,
  1. the sun will be darkened,
  2. and the moon will not give its light;
  3. the stars will fall from the sky,
  4. and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
  5. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky,
  6. and all the nations of the earth will mourn.
  7. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
  8. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call,
  9. and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
Matthew 24:29-31 (NIV)

Points eight and nine above correlate with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17, but I cannot explain everything in the list. I believe Jesus when he says it will happen after the distress and not before it. Even though I take Jesus’ words at face value rather than dismissing or discounting them, I have no idea when this will occur. Jesus said of this time, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Matthew 24:36 (NIV) Jesus says, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42 (NIV) Paul tells the Thessalonians,

Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 (NIV)

I wrestle with this. Jesus apparently sets predicates to his return; then he says, no one can know about that day except the Father. Then he says, “Keep watch” as if his return is eminent, and Paul seems to reiterate Jesus words. Nevertheless, Paul also says, “That day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed.” 2 Thessalonians 2:3 (NIV) Yet Peter warns, “Understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this coming that is promised?’” 2 Peter 3:3, 4 (NIV)

I know that Jesus Christ will return, but I do not know when Jesus Christ will return. I do not think that anyone on earth has better insight into this than I do. I am not being arrogant; I am admitting that only the Father in heaven knows what he has ordained. Whatever I predict would be an uninformed guess and worth about as much as anyone else’s uninformed guess. I choose to take Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John at their word and I try to avoid adding complexity to my interpretation. Jesus will return. Before he does some events will transpire; however, we may not read the impending signs correctly.

Regardless of when Jesus is coming back, I know how we should live in the early twenty-first century. We should live as if we are in the last days. We should expect the world to become more evil and malevolent toward faithfulness. We should expect to see others fall away even as we hold fast. We should be obedient. We should become homesick for the unshakable kingdom rather than becoming contented with or entrenched within this temporary abode. We should be ready for his return.

No believer from the first century, who waited eagerly for Christ’s return, is disappointed. He is with Jesus now. Likewise, whether we are living in the last days, or living until our last day, we will all soon see Jesus. Consequently, we should be watchful. We cannot know when our Lord will come for us.

When we look at world events, they may be warning us that the end is near. Nevertheless, we should not fear. Our best predictions, our eschatology, are likely far off target. Regardless of when Jesus is coming back, our remaining time on earth is short. Even if times of distress are ahead of us, we should not fear. The safest place for us during the time of great distress is to be exactly where God wants us to be.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High
shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD,
He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee
from the snare of the fowler,
and from the noisome pestilence.
He shall cover thee with his feathers,
and under his wings shalt thou trust:
his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;
nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side,
and ten thousand at thy right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.
Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold
and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the LORD,
which is my refuge,
even the most High, thy habitation.

Psalm 91:1-9 (KJV)

The safest place to be during a California earthquake is Kansas. The safest place to be during a hurricane may be where NOAA first predicts it will land. The safest place to be during times of distress, both great and small, is deep within the secret place – the refuge of our faith in Jesus Christ. If we are living our lives beneath the shadow of his wings, we will be ready when he comes again.

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