Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 12/26/99
Since people think of this as the last Sunday of the millennium (though technically that would be a year from now and actually some 4-6 years ago); since some apparently expect the world to end next Friday night; since most of our people are away, which makes it futile to resume our series in Ephesians yet; and since there are relatively few witnesses present to remind me of all the things I got wrong when the Lord does return; therefore I am going to begin a miniseries on eschatology [pause for gasps of shock from the congregation]. We have indeed tried to avoid adding to the millennial hype that is sweeping the Evangelical world and making us look like complete idiots. But if we are going to accuse others of sensationalism, it makes it incumbent upon us to teach this important biblical doctrine rightly. I am under no illusions that I have every detail of the "end times" figured out, and you will be very foolish if you put much stock in my version of those details. But there is some important biblical teaching that we need to latch onto nonetheless.
We begin with the overview of the last days in the book of Daniel chp. 2. Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a large statue with a head of gold, a chest of silver, a belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. Daniel tells him that he is the head of gold, and the other metals represent subsequent kingdoms. If the gold head is the Babylonian empire, that would reasonably make the silver Medeo-Persia, the brass the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, the iron the Roman empire, and the feet the European nations which descend from Rome, perhaps including their colonies. But the emphasis is on the unity of the statue, not its divisions. It represents what the NT calls the "world." A stone is cut out without hands and smites the feet, with the effect that the entire image is smashed to bits and blown away like chaff--there is nothing left. Then the stone grows into a mountain that covers the whole earth. Daniel explains that this will be a kingdom set up by God that will never be destroyed.
In subsequent visions Daniel comes back to the same material, adding new details. Four beasts parallel the four metals, with ten horns replacing the ten toes, along with a further horn that is apparently what the NT calls the AntiChrist. And there are 70 "weeks"--possibly periods of seven years--decreed. After 69, Messiah will be cut off. There then remains one which is the end of judgments--apparently what the NT calls the Great Tribulation.
The Church has never had consensus on the interpretation of this scenario--contrary to what some teachers with more zeal than sense might imply. The three major positions are categorized with reference to how the return of Christ relates to the Millennium of Revelation 20--a thousand years of peace with Christ reigning in Jerusalem. A-Millenialists take the thousand years as symbolic of the Church age, seeing all the OT promises to Israel as having "spiritual" fulfillments in the Church. But while the simplicity of this view is appealing, it is by no means clear that all the promises to Israel can really be spiritualized without some major stretching. Post-Millenialists believe in a literal Millenium that the Church will bring in through preaching the Gospel. Christ will return after ("post") that Millenium. Pre-Millenialists believe that Christ will return before ("pre") the Millenium. This has in the last century become the majority position among conservatives.
Do Daniel's prophecies lend themselves better to one of these schemes than another? I think so. The destruction of the world system by the Stone is sudden and cataclysmic and total. The statue is obliterated immediately, and only then does the Stone grow into a mountain that covers the earth. Post-Millenialism requires the replacement of the metals by the Stone to be a gradual process. The only way to read Post-Mil. into the passage is to make the smashing correspond to Christ's victory on the Cross. But the Stature is not obliterated--it is still very much with us. Therefore the smashing must refer to the Second Coming. The Pre-Millennial scenario seems to fit much better with the details of the passage.
This is important because, while Post-Mil. is a minority position today, it was once very influential. It was the position of the American Puritan fathers. And in secularized form, divorced from their belief in the Gospel, it became the basic world view of both Protestant religious liberalism and secular political liberalism, both of which hope to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through human effort. And we see that this is not just a biblical position misapplied--it is not even a biblical position to start with. Therefore we should be very leery of anyone who implies that Man can bring peace on earth through his own efforts--with or without the aid of the Gospel. In secular form, this idea leads to totalitarianism, for it is a sound principle verified by history that the more utopian the political vision, the more repressive the regime that tries to implement it. In religious form, it leads to the Social Gospel and a dilution of the biblical message of salvation by Grace through Faith in the finished work of Christ alone.
Are we then being defeatist by saying that Man can never bring about the Millennium until Christ returns? That is what our Evangelical Post-Millennial brethren would accuse us of. But no: we are not to abandon human culture because it is doomed. We are to preach the Gospel and heal the sick and care for the poor and be salt and light in the whole culture--NOT because we think this has any chance of succeeding (except on a local and temporary basis) but because we are commanded to do it. It is a rear-guard action until reinforcements arrive in the form of the Second Coming. To think it can be more is to open ourselves to a host of temptations that tend to corrupt our work, just as to be satisfied with less is also to be unfaithful to the biblical vision. Hence, a sound understanding of biblical prophecy helps us to stear a course between the equal and opposite errors of Anabaptist-type withdrawal from culture on the one hand and Post-Millenialist co-option by it on the other. It is not so much about predicting when Christ will return as understanding how to be faithful until then. Or so it seems to me.
Here endeth the lesson.