Apocalypse: Been There, Done That
Ever since I started thinking about the second coming of Jesus, this dumb title has been stuck in my head. So I'm running with it.
I believe that the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Second Coming of Jesus, Judgment Day, the Resurrection, and the New Jerusalem have ALREADY come. The world-shattering events that terrify so many people have already happened, and are behind us now.
And I believe this is a straight-forward conclusion of taking the Bible seriously, and attempting to read it as the original hearers did.
I'm going to use THREE main scriptural facts to demonstrate this. While we could debate the finer points of eschatology for the rest of our lives, I'm happy just to know the overall story, and I think these three facts can tell us what that is.
But first, read this, for my take on how we are to interpret the bible. I don't think we can prove massive viewpoints like this one. I think we have to evaluate whether any given viewpoint explains the facts better or worse than the other viewpoints offered.
THE END IS NEAR
"The End is Near" is a cliche in our culture. For decades now, people have been walking the streets carrying signs, proclaiming this scary "truth" to us. We've come to expect it from religious figures. So when reading about Jesus, we might miss just how urgent he really was.
But Jesus started his ministry just like John did, by declaring "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!" And he really meant it. Early on, we hear "flee from the wrath to come!"
Jesus was announcing an impending judgment, not something that might happen thousands of years in the future. He reaches his most definitive when he states:
"Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are STANDING HERE who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." (Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1, Luke 9:27)
"Truly I say to you, THIS generation will not pass away until ALL THESE THINGS take place." (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32)
He had just been talking about his second coming, and when his disciples asked when it would happen, he told them THEIR GENERATION WOULD LIVE TO SEE IT. Some of the people who heard Jesus teach would live to see his return.
When telling his disciples what to do after his death, he tells them to keep moving, no matter what. Why? Because they've got a lot of ground to cover, and not much time:
Assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23)
This theme only gets stronger through the rest of the New Testament. When Peter stands up at Pentecost, he explains to the crowd what the miracles they were seeing were all about:
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16No, THIS IS WHAT was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17" 'In the LAST DAYS, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
The signs they were doing were fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, and the prophecy of Joel was all about what would happen in the "last days", just prior to the Day of The Lord. And Peter says that he and his friends had just kicked off the Last Days.
You would expect that if a great catastrophe was looming (called "The Day of The Lord"), you would become more and more urgent as that event approached. That is in fact what did happen. If Jesus announced it was near, within his generation, and if Peter declared that they were in the Last Days, John declared first that it was the LAST DAY, and then the LAST HOUR.
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. (1 John 2:18-19)
The prophet Daniel received a vision of The End, and was told to seal it up, because the time was far away. Approximately 490 years later, John re-opened that vision. But this time, he was told NOT to seal it up, because the time was short.
Was he expecting "short" to mean 2000 more years?
THE TWO SONS
There's no doubt in my mind that the apostles and prophets of the New Testament believed the Second Coming would happen in their lifetimes. And they believed that they got this information from Jesus himself.
CS Lewis knew this. He said that Jesus had plainly and clearly been wrong. CS Lewis didn't have any trouble seeing that the Second Coming was expected to happen in the first century. He had trouble understanding WHAT the Second Coming was.
WHAT was Jesus saying would happen? What was the significance of the Second Coming, and why was it so important that it happen SOON? If they expected something to come so quickly, WHAT were they expecting?
Fortunately, Paul tells us exactly how he saw the last days he was living in.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
24These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:22-26)
The Jewish identity had been built on this story. But Paul is now reversing it, looking at the deeper principles. Abraham fathered his first child through his slave, Hagar. His second child, the son of promise, was fathered through Sarah.
This story illustrates a couple of principles. One, God works through God's means. Abraham's attempt to fulfill God's promises through his own efforts (by fathering a child through Hagar) was doomed to failure. It was the miraculous son (through Sarah), that God would use to fulfill his promises.
Two, the biblical order is from death to life, from slavery to freedom. This is why God exalts the lesser, the second-born, the barren.
Paul shows that these principles are being played out here. God's real ambition was to create a new covenant, and a spiritual Israel. Man's efforts to create God's kingdom through temples and warfare would ultimately fail.
So the "Son Of Promise" was Paul and the body of Christ. They were the children of "Sarah", the New Covenant, the Jerusalem from above. And the "Son of Slavery" was the current Israel. They were the children of "Hagar", the Old Covenant, the Jerusalem from below.
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." 31Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:28-31)
Here is the big picture. God was going to create a new humanity. Which "son" would this happen through? Which "son" would inherit God's promises? God had two children: a physical, fleshly nation, and a spiritual, heavenly nation. The "mothers" of those children were the two covenants: a physical, fleshly covenant, and a spiritual, heavenly covenant. One kept people enslaved. One set people free.
But BOTH were from God, just like both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham. And only one could inherit.
In the story of Ishmael and Isaac, there is an overlap. Ishmael is born, and lives in Abraham's house. Later, Isaac is born. Isaac and Ishmael live side by side for a while. But Ishmael realizes that Isaac is going to take his place, and so torments Isaac. Eventually, Ishmael and his mother are cast out, leaving Isaac free to inherit the promises.
Until Ishmael was cast out, Isaac was never free to be the heir, because Ishmael was the first-born. Only at the casting-out of Ishmael is Isaac recognized as the full heir.
Paul tells his friends that this was exactly the situation they were in. The Old Covenant came from God, and with it, the Old Israel. Then God created a New Covenant and a New Israel, beginning with Jesus.
For a time, BOTH existed together, each with rival claims to being God's chosen son. And so Old Israel tormented the New Israel.
But Paul tells them not to worry. Their tormentors were going to be cast out, and when they were, the New Israel would be free to inherit the promises.
So Paul looks forward to both a physical and a spiritual release. At the casting-out of Old Israel, their physical tormentor would be gone. But on a deeper level, God would have shown that the New Israel was his true son, the son of promise. Only THEN would Paul and his audience really be free to enjoy the full inheritance of the New Covenant. Only THEN would it be clear who God's chosen people were. Only then would they truly be free from condemnation.
We tend to assume that the Old Covenant went away at the cross. But to Paul, the cross was the start of the New Covenant. The presence of the New Covenant meant the Old Covenant was about to pass away (Hebrews 8:13), but the Old Covenant was still there, condemning, standing between man and God. As long as the temple was standing, the way to God could not be fully known (Hebrews 9:8).
The fall of the temple meant the Law and condemnation were taken away, and full access to God made available. And THAT is what they were looking for, and why it was so important that it happen SOON.
THE END OF THE STORY
Revelation is a very complex, symbolic book. Almost no one claims to understand everything in it. But we don't need to understand everything in it to understand its point. If you want to know what a book is about, skip to the ending.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God..." (Revelation 21:2-3)
Revelation ends with the New Jerusalem. Many people see this as symbolic of heaven. But the scriptures make clear, this New Jerusalem is coming FROM HEAVEN, TO EARTH. It does not represent an after-death reality, but something that humanity can experience on the ground. The New Jerusalem represents the fact that God is now fully present with humanity, on earth.
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:9-10)
If it wasn't clear before, the identity of this New Jerusalem is explicitly stated here. This New Jerusalem (or, the Jerusalem from above, which Paul claimed to be part of) is the bride of Christ. Instead of a physical city to be set up or a sideways reference to heaven, this is talking about the victory of the New Covenant and the New Israel.
It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:12-14)
To drill the point home, we're told that this New Jerusalem is founded on the apostles, and draws from the original tribes of Israel. We're being given a very clear reference to the 1st-century followers of Jesus.
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. (Revelation 21:22-23)
Far from a physical city needing physical lighting, this city is a spiritual reality whose only source of light is God himself. It doesn't even need a physical building for use as a temple, because being inside God is the only temple needed.
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life. (Romans 21:24-27)
"The nations will walk by its light". If this was a post-death heaven, there would be no nations around. Instead, this is referring to the New Covenant, now victorious on earth, fulfilling its purpose of being a light to the world.
Its gates are always open, because the invitation to enter into God's rest is always there. If this were a post-death heaven, who would be left to enter in? Instead, this is a reality on the earth, and as the nations see its truth, they bring their glory and honor into it.
The end result of the biblical story isn't the destruction of planet Earth, or the journey to heaven. The end result is instead the victory of God and his people and his covenant. In that victory, the New Covenant is established as an eternal covenant, which is always open, always inviting. It is the spiritual reality of the marriage of God and man, of Christ and his ecclesia.
And that spiritual reality is here NOW. God lives with humanity, continually inviting all to come and rest with him.
In AD 70, approximately 40 years after the death of Jesus and 2-4 years after Revelation was written, all things prophesied came to pass. Between AD 66 and AD 73, a man known as a beast attempted to destroy Christianity, the dynasty of the Caesars came to a violent end, millions of Jews around the world were killed, the entire Roman Empire was shaken to its core, and the two greatest temples in the world (the temple of Jupiter in Rome and the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem) burned to the ground.
More significantly, False Messiahs stood up in the Jewish Temple and called on God to grant them supernatural victory, as they started the war which they correctly believed would initiate The Day of Judgment. Unfortunately, they were on the wrong side.
Thousands of Jews from all over the world streamed to Jerusalem to take part in the Great Rebellion. And the Roman armies marched on Jerusalem.
The Christians saw Jesus' signs being fulfilled, and fled to the mountains. The rest of the Jews ignored the warnings, as the opportunity for escape passed them by. Locked inside the city of Jerusalem, False Messiahs battled each other, brutally killing thousands upon thousands of Jews who were deemed not faithful enough. The blood of this slaughter poured out of the temple and streamed down the streets of Jerusalem, an abomination worse than any in history.
The end result was obvious to anyone not engulfed in spiritual blindness. The armies of Rome waited for Israel to decimate herself, then plunged in and burned it to the ground. The Jewish Temple burned on the exact day that Solomon's Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, 656 years earlier. Over a million Jews were killed, 97,000 were led into slavery, and around the empire, hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.
The Old Covenant world that had rejected God's revelation went down into fiery destruction. Jews who had put their hope in the temple and in their false prophets were cut off, their access to God revoked. The Christians who had heeded Jesus' warnings were seen as the true heirs of God's covenant.
Titus, the Roman leader, reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, as there is "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God".
The destruction was massive and agonizing. But the fall of the Temple meant the fall of everything that obstructed the way into God's presence. The barriers to God came dramatically tumbling down, leaving only God's holy city, the new spiritual Jerusalem, pristine and unblemished, opening her doors to the new world.