Part 3 of 3 in the message series by Pastor Steve Babbitt entitled “I’ll Take You There: Death, Resurrection, and the Kingdom Come”
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”
8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.
12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.
20 “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. 22 For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. 23 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
[pray and get out of the way]
Our series on the end of things wraps up today. We’ve explored death and the resurrection, and now we are going to talk about the kingdom come. Specifically, we are going to talk about the different ways to interpret the book of Revelation, originally called the “apocalypse”, which is Greek for unveiling, or pulling the curtain back. But apocalyptic literature isn’t limited to the book of Revelation. Those of you who have read the book of Daniel know that the back nine gets weird. That’s because it’s apocalyptic: it’s about the kingdom to come at the end of the age. Matthew, Mark, and Luke also feature an apocalypse – only this one is special, it was spoken by Jesus. We just read Luke’s version of the apocalypse according to Jesus. There are some minor differences between Matthew, Mark and Luke, but they are overall in harmony.
I chose Luke’s for today because I think it is the most concise summary of the apocalypse, and contains everything we really need to know about the end and the kingdom come – at least everything Jesus seems to think we need to know.
If we compare the apocalypse of Daniel, the apocalypse of Jesus, and the apocalypse of John, even though they have different emphases, they each serve one purpose, and that is – I beg you to please pardon my language – to scare the hell out of us. Literally. To encourage us to get our acts together and be ready when God does come back to judge the world and straighten out the mess we’ve made of things. In another sense, the apocalypses in the Bible are also meant to encourage the oppressed and the persecuted, to remind us that “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and that one day our suffering will be over, and those who have loved God and neighbor will be vindicated, while those who have done evil will be brought to justice.
When comparing apocalyptic literature, we also get some common big themes: that the old temple of Jerusalem will be the judged and torn apart, that the remnant righteous of God will be subject to terrible tribulation that will test and refine their faith, and that finally, God himself will return to destroy evil and evildoers once and for all, and to establish an inexpressibly beautiful new heaven and new earth that will never end.
When I trained as a journalist, I learned there are seven basic questions that have to be asked in any situation: who, what, when, where, how, why – we know those, but there’s one more – how much does it cost?
Taken together, even though there are many things that are not so clear, the apocalypses in the Bible give us a pretty good overall picture of what will go down.
We know who – God, Israel, and all of humanity.
We know what – Final judgment for the wicked, eternal reward for the righteous.
We know where – Even though Jerusalem gets it first, ultimately, the entire world will be judged.
We know basically how – There will be fierce tribulation and persecution that will put the faithful to the test before the big ending.
We know why – Because God is good and God is just, He will not let evil and injustice run on forever. He must make things right once and for all.
We even know how much it will cost – Everything! For our part, we will be asked to set every earthly thing aside in exchange for that which is eternal. For His part, God will give His own Son to redeem those who truly desire to be with Him.
But the question of when … That’s the big question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? The disciples’ only question in this entire passage is “when will these things happen?” And, in classic Jesus fashion, that’s the one question Jesus refuses to answer. He gives them a basic sequence – first the temple will be judged, and then the whole world, and then eternal bliss. He gives the disciples who, what, why, where, how, and even how much it is going to cost. But he doesn’t tell them when. He tells us everything we need to know about the apocalypse, but not the one thing we want to know!
Everybody wants to know when. You could make a fortune selling novels and movies with half-baked answers to that question! Suffice it to say, the fact that Jesus himself didn’t answer that question, and even himself said, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36) – that right there should tell us that the exact “when” of Revelation is unimportant and, I might even argue, totally irrelevant to our daily lives. It is on a need to know basis, and according to Jesus, even He doesn’t need to know.
And yet … we almost can’t help ourselves from dwelling on this least important question of all. Don’t get me wrong – it isn’t wrong to ponder “when” Jesus might be coming back; it is merely pointless. It shouldn’t change anything about the way we live. On the other hand, making reckless proclamations about dates and times is a grave error. It is a sin to lead one another astray from our mission by focusing our attention on the “when” at the expense of fulfilling our daily call to love God and neighbor.
It is the responsibility of each one of us to ask, seek, and knock, and to study the scriptures to show ourselves approved. I can not – and could not – explain everything you need to know about the Bible. That’s not really my responsibility – the Holy Spirit does that.
But I can give you some tools to help you along the way.
Today I want to share with you a very helpful way for dealing with this question of “when” Jesus will come back. And even though I would discourage you from frittering time off-task and off-mission by dwelling on the question of “when” the end will come, I know that most serious followers of Jesus seem to come back to cast around in this eddy from time to time.
So, what is the tool I want to share? Time glasses. To be precise, four different sets of time glasses, each with a different type of time lens.
Lenses can make all the difference in how we see the world, can’t they? Different lenses do different things. I’ve only recently started wearing a prescription – the top is for distance and the bottom is for up-close. Bifocals. Two lenses in one! Those two lenses have assisted me a great deal lately, and I am grateful for them.
There are other types of lenses.Blue blockers take some of the strain off of our eyes, and can help us see better. Fishermen often keep a pair of special glasses in their tackle box. Polarized glasses help cut through the glare so they can see fish under the surface. When it comes to fishing for answers about “when” Jesus is coming back, we need to be aware of the different kinds of lenses we can use to make sense of apocalyptic literature. We also need to bear in mind that just because we can see a fish through the water, it doesn’t mean we will catch the fish! Even if our glasses could eliminate all of the glare, the principle of refraction means that the fish is never quite where we think it is.
There are four “lenses” through which we can understand the timing of the apocalypse. idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist. Big words, I know. I will explain each of them in a moment, but before trying them on, it is absolutely essential to understand that each set of lenses has its strengths, and each one has its limitations. Even though I personally tend to favor different lenses at different times, I can’t say that any of them is completely satisfying, nor, on the other hand, that any of them is completely worthless. They each have something to contribute. But at the end of the day, even if we could see perfectly through one of these lenses, that big fish still isn’t going to be quite where we expect it to be.
So, are you ready? If you want to jot these four down, by all means go for it, but I will be posting the text of this message on our website so you can look into it later.
Now here are the four lenses again: idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist.
The idealist lens sees apocalyptic literature as mostly symbolic allegory.
The preterist lens sees apocalyptic literature as mostly taking place in the past.
The historicist lens sees apocalyptic literature as mostly taking place in the present.
And finally the futurist lens – you’ve probably guessed it – sees apocalyptic literature as mostly taking place in the future.
Let’s try these lenses on for a moment and see what we might learn.
The Idealist Lens: Believes that apocalyptic literature is mostly symbolic and spiritual, and therefore that the “when” of the apocalypse is … “always.” In other words, an idealist interprets imagery such as many-headed beasts as symbolic of general evil in the world and persecution as representative of any ongoing challenge for Christians. Extreme versions of the idealist view might go so far as to claim there will be no physical second coming or even a resurrection of the dead. In a purely idealist view, those are spiritual metaphors that describe something that happens in our hearts and minds, but might not happen in any physical, tangible way. One strength of the idealist view is that it frees us from trying to map beasts and scrolls and seals and bowls of wrath to specific historical events, and forces us to be ready to stand against evil at all times. One weakness of the idealist view is that Daniel, John, and Jesus give every literary cue that they think this stuff will really go down. The idealist lens can help us appreciate the spiritual battles taking place each day, but when taken to an extreme can leave us without the hope of a resurrection, a new heaven, and a new earth.
The Preterist lens: comes from the latin word “praeter” which means “past” (Thank you Julie Brennan for the help with pronunciation!) The preterist lens sees the apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel, the Gospels, and Revelation as mostly already fulfilled. This view essentially holds that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 marked the beginning of millennium, and the eternal reign of Christ. For a pure preterist, the “new heaven and the new earth” is the era we live in now, the era of the church. I should point out that there are “partial preterists” who think some of the prophecies have already been fulfilled, while other aspects like the resurrection of the dead and final judgment are yet to be. One argument supporting the preterist view comes from the book of Daniel itself, in which at least one apocalyptic prophecy is interpreted as referring to the past ancient empires of Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Another is the undeniable fact that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 after a period of immense suffering. But one weakness is that all of the apocalyptic literature that involves the destruction of the temple seems to carry a double bang – yes, the temple will fall, but some time after that the entire age will come to an end. Another weakness of a purely preterist view is that it gives us nothing to look forward to; and if we are living in the millennium, or even the eternal kingdom as an extreme preterist might argue, it leaves much to be desired.
The Historicist lens: Believes that the apocalyptic prophecies are partly fulfilled, and partly still to be fulfilled. A historicist view holds that symbols in the prophetic literature are progressively being fulfilled over time, and that some of the great events have already happened (as in the Daniel’s account of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman Empires), while a great deal is still going to happen in the days to come. One strength of the historicist view is that it heightens our sense of urgency by making us aware that certain world events may be signs of the end. We open our news feed and revelation is being revealed every day! In that sense, the historicist view can lead to obsession over the news, and keeps us distracted from our real work while we are busy trying to fit puzzle pieces from our time into the big picture – even if the pieces don’t really fit that well. One weakness of the historicist lens is that it tends to be very shortsighted, only focusing on events closest to our own lifetimes. In the last 2,000 years, the historicist lens has been used to map the antichrist to everyone from Nero to Charlemagne to the Pope to Napoleon to Hitler to Putin to … well, you get the picture. The idea that we are somewhere in the middle of the tribulation today can spur us to be more vigilant, and that is good. But we must be careful not to fall into the trap of finding the antichrist in every world leader today.
Finally, the Futurist lens: Believes that apocalypse passages are mostly about events yet to come. This view tends to discount most, if not all historical correlation between prophecies and world events of the past. For a pure futurist, the seven seals in the book of Revelation, and in some cases even the judgment on the temple, are yet to take place. Realistically, however, most futurists would probably agree that the destruction of the temple did already happen in AD 70, even though the rest remains in the future. One strength of the futurist lens is that it rightly builds anticipation and keeps us on our toes, always watching the horizon. One major weakness of the futurist lens is that, historically speaking, until the protestant reformation, this view was rarely articulated.
It may surprise you to learn that the teaching of a rapture, a la the “Left Behind” theory, where the faithful are secretly plucked away to avoid the tribulation – that doctrine was not developed until the mid 1800s. An Irish pastor named Darby first articulated the theory, and then it was picked up by Scofield, and DL Moody, and later Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel.
The strongest passage used to defend a “left-behind” type rapture comes from the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:36-41:
36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and TOOK THEM ALL AWAY. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be TAKEN and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be TAKEN and the other left.
Until Darby, every major preacher and teacher understood being “TAKEN” in verses 40 and 41 in the same negative sense Jesus used to describe what happened to the people taken away by the flood in verse 39: as taken away TO BE JUDGED, not to be SHIELDED from judgment. Darby and his progeny flipped it around to mean that the faithful will be taken away. I am not going to say a rapture is impossible, for all things are possible with God. Nicholas Cage could be right. But as I read it Jesus makes it pretty clear that his people will not be taken away from the tribulation, but quite the contrary, only he who endures to the end will be saved.
Keep it Simple: Childlike Faith
Now, all of that was an earful. A great book worth checking out if you want to know more is “Revelation: Four Views” by Steve Gregg. Paige also has some wonderful notes from a series on Revelation she did about five or six years ago, using that book as a source. You may want to ask her if she’d share them with you.
But when all is said and done, whether you prefer idealist, preterist, historicist, or futurist glasses, the bottom line does not change one bit. There is only one satisfactory answer to “the when” question: and that is “SOON.”
Jesus’ intent in giving us apocalyptic literature and the book of revelation wasn’t to get us lost in the eddies of speculation, but to keep our lamps trimmed and ready, to get us off our butts and back to the street with the good news of the gospel. It was to stir a sense of urgency about getting right with God and our neighbors, because He’s coming soon.
I’ve come to believe that expressing our theology should never be so complicated that a child can’t articulate it. And so here is where I want to finish today: the three things we need to know about the revelation and the kingdom come.
People get ready. Jesus is coming. Soon we’ll be going home.
Even a child can remember that.
Let us pray.
Father, give us eyes to see that we overcomplicate this stuff way too often. What we need to focus on is not the when, but the what now? What do you want us to do right now? How do you want us to love you today? How do you want us to love our neighbor this week?
Forgive us for getting lost in the eddies of trying to sort out “when” to the neglect of the mission you’ve given us – to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk nearer our God to thee.
Thank you for your promise to preserve us as we seek to honor you, now and always. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.