The Blessed Hope in the Last Days

Knowing that the Passover was at hand; knowing that his hour had come to depart this world to the Father; knowing that he must leave his disciples behind to continue his work; knowing that they, like him, would face terrible opposition in doing so; and knowing that they would need an unfailing source of courage and strength to fulfill so difficult a task, the Lord Jesus Christ—faithfully loving his own to the end—left them with this unforgettable promise:

      Let not you heart be troubled: Believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am there you may be also.  — John 14:1-3            

These are the words of the heavenly Bridegroom to his earthly Betrothed. In the manner of all young Jewish men, he must briefly leave her behind in order to prepare a place for her on his Father’s estate. Nevertheless, in just a little while he will return, receive her to himself, proudly escort her to her new home, consummate the marriage covenant with unspeakable delight, and ever after live together with her there in the infinite fruitfulness of their mutual love. Thus did the Lord Jesus Christ give his disciples—all of his disciples—the gift of hope.

A BLESSED HOPE

The promise of Christ’s coming again is no ordinary hope. His people do not hope for it as they hope for sunshine on the day of the picnic, or for the home-team to win the World Series. No, they are actually quite certain of their Lord’s return. When the Spirit entered their heart, they were united—through repentance and faith–with the ascended Christ. Being thus united, they were seated with him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). Being thus seated, they began to survey, through the lens of Scripture, God’s great plan for the ages; the character and course of Salvation History. And beholding this, they came to know—with absolute certainty—that as surely as their Lord had come to earth a first time to accomplish their redemption, so surely would he come again a second time to consummate that redemption; to receive them, in glory, once and for all, to himself (John 16:13; Heb. 11:1, 7, 13; 1 Peter. 1:3-9).

Having pondered it often—and written of it much—the Apostle Paul referred to the second coming of Christ as the Church’s Blessed Hope.

        For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope, even the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave himself for us that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works. — Titus 2:11-14

In the journey before us, my goal is to plumb the Blessed Hope to its very depths. But before we embark, let us linger for a moment over the phrase itself.

As for the word “hope,” we find throughout the NT that it means a confident expectation of future good, presently seen only by faith (Rom. 8:18-25, Heb. 11:1). Here, the believer’s confidence is rooted in an objective fact, namely, that the future good in store has been promised to them by an omnipotent, covenant-keeping God who is always true to his word. As the apostle Paul put it, the saints enjoy a hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago; and which even now he has made manifest by sending Christ into the world with the good news of the Gospel (Titus 1:2-3, Heb. 6:17-20).

But why is this hope blessed? One answer might be: It is blessed because on the day of Christ’s return he will do so many wonderful things to consummate the happiness of his people. And that is true enough. But a deeper, more penetrating answer would be: It is blessed because, as God’s people contemplate this hope, the Holy Spirit actually gives them a foretaste of the manifold joys they will experience on that Day. Indeed, the Holy Spirit actually gives them a foretaste of the manifold joys that God and Christ themselves will experience on that Day, when the saints fully enter into the joy of their Lord (Mt. 25:21)!

Now, if all this be the case—if, under the Spirit of God, biblical teaching about the Blessed Hope actually puts God’s people in contact with the power and joy of Christ at his return—then two closely related facts immediately become clear.

First, the Blessed Hope must actually be a fountain of manifold blessings; blessings that are meant to equip and empower God’s people for a successful pilgrimage through the howling wilderness of this world; blessings such as eager anticipation, ardent desire, unquenchable curiosity and delight, courage, determination, endurance, self-sacrifice, and evangelistic confidence and effectiveness; blessings that the heavenly Bridegroom surely had in mind when, at his parting, he gave birth to this supernatural hope with his unforgettable word of promise.

But secondly—and quite soberingly—it is equally clear that any confusion about the true character of the Blessed Hope must hinder the work of the Spirit in imparting its attendant virtues; it must stanch the flow of the many-streamed fountain; and so it must grieve the heavenly Groom, whose word, somehow, has missed the mark, and whose Bride therefore now walks weak and wounded through the world.

A DARKENED SUN

For at least 1500 years, the historic Christian Church, with the rarest of exceptions, stood united in her understanding of the Blessed Hope. Whether we think of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, or Methodist communions, all shared a united vision of the Consummation: Christ will come again once at the end of the present evil age. He will come bodily, visibly, and in power and great glory. He will bring all the holy angels and all the souls of the departed saints in his train. At his arrival in the skies above the earth, he will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, destroy the present universe by fire, and turn the wicked (along with Satan and his demons) into hell. And then he will create glorious new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed.

Here was an incomparably simple, clear, majestic, dreadful, and unspeakably soul-strengthening scenario that century after century warned and chastened sinners, even as it anchored and stirred the deepest hopes of the faithful saints.

 Today, however, much has changed, especially in evangelical circles. Indeed, over the last 150 years the conservative Protestant consensus on eschatology has largely dissolved, with the result that leaders are unable to agree, and laymen are unable to decide between a bewildering number of competing eschatological options. Small wonder, then, that we find evangelical publishers continually giving books with titles like The Millennial MazeContemporary Options in EschatologyThree Views on the Rapture, and The Revelation: Four Views!

This troubling development raises a number of obvious and important questions. What has gone awry? Why has the historic consensus on eschatology collapsed? How could so many theologians and churchmen of the past have been wrong, if indeed they were wrong? Is biblical eschatology really as difficult as the present divisions seem to indicate? Is it that God is now giving us fresh light on eschatology? Or is it that the Church is now under spiritual attack, and therefore in danger of losing whatever eschatological light she formerly enjoyed?

 For my part, I believe that the answer to these questions is found upon the lips of Christ himself, who once said to his disciples, “An enemy has done this” (Mt. 13:28). That enemy would be the devil and Satan, who, in Revelation 9:1-2, is pictured as a star fallen from heaven to the earth; a malevolent angelic being who opens the shaft of the abyss so that a great a cloud of smoke rises up to darken the sun and the air. Here, then, in the mystical symbolism of the Revelation, we find a warning that in the last days Satan and his army of evil spirits will strive mightily to obscure the truth of God; to cloud the minds of men with errors and lies; to deceive, if it were possible, the very elect; to toss them to and fro, and carry them about with every wind of false doctrine (Mt. 24:24, Eph. 4:14). In short, I believe the modern beclouding of the Blessed Hope of Christ’s Church is a sure sign of intense spiritual warfare on the eschatological front.

COUNTING THE COST

For five weighty reasons, this warfare is costing the saints dearly.

First, it diminishes eschatological clarity. The Bible assures us that our Lord very much desires such clarity for his Church. Having spoken at length to his disciples about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, he pointedly asked them, “Have you understood these things?” He knew, of course, that they hadn’t, and that they couldn’t until the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit would come to teach them all things. Nevertheless, Christ’s remarks reveal his heart: He wants his people to be clear about biblical eschatology. In particular, he wants them to be clear about the Kingdom of God: its nature, its stages, the meaning of the OT prophecies that foretold it, and the design and structure of the great Consummation that will bring it to completion. In other words, he wants his people to be competent NT scribes, drawing out of the great treasure chest of biblical wisdom things new and old. He wants them to be skillful in using fully digested NT truth to understand, enjoy, and proclaim all that was revealed in OT times (Mt. 13:51-52).

Secondly, to the extent that it diminishes clarity, the present eschatological confusion also diminishes expectancy, confidence, and joy. Again, eschatological truth is meant to unite us spiritually with our Blessed Hope. It is meant to be a conduit through which the beauty, power, majesty, and joy of the Consummation pours into our souls even before the event itself occurs. It should enable us to “exult in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2)! If, however, our Blessed Hope is overshadowed by doubt or error, then to that degree expectancy, confidence, and joy must wither away.

Thirdly, the present confusion diminishes comfort in tribulation. All Christians understand that they are appointed to tribulation, sometimes to great tribulation (John 16:33, Mt. 24:21, 1 Thess. 3:1-5, Rev. 7:14). Certainly, the apostle Paul understood this (Acts 14:22, 20:3, 2 Cor. 11). How, then, did he steel himself against the prospect of such terrible trials? How did he get them into perspective? How did he come to regard them as “light,” almost trivial?

The answer appears throughout his writings: In the midst of all his tribulations, Paul took great comfort in his clear vision of the Blessed Hope; in clearly seeing the unseen things waiting up ahead; in clearly seeing that his present afflictions were not worthy to be compared with the glories soon to come; in clearly seeing and savoring the eschatological blessings lovingly prepared for him in eternity past by a benevolent, sovereign, and omnipotent God (1 Cor. 2:1f, 2 Cor. 4:18, Rom. 8:18). Through Paul we therefore learn that eschatological clarity is crucial; that it is meant to prepare and gird Christ’s Church for her manifold tribulations, putting temporary earthly trials into eternal, heavenly perspective. Small wonder, then, that the enemy of our souls—whom our Lord aptly describes as a thief and a robber—would dearly love to steal that clarity from us (John 10:1).

Fourthly, the current eschatological warfare diminishes power in preaching.  As we know from the Great Commission, the raison d’etre of the Church Militant is to preach the gospel to all nations, so that Christ may gather to himself a believing people, a holy Bride who will live with him forever in the World to Come (Mt. 28:18f, John 10:16, Titus 2:14, Rev. 21:1f). But just as a precious gem needs a worthy metallic setting for the proper display of its glory, so too the glorious message of redemption needs a worthy theological setting. It needs a carefully structured underpinning of closely related biblical doctrines. These include, of course, the doctrines of creation and fall. But they also include the doctrines surrounding the Consummation: Christ’s second coming, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and a glorious new world to come. In other words, one cannot “placard” Christ to full effect unless he does so against the backdrop of solid biblical teaching on the Consummation. The Church requires a sound eschatology in order to preach a sound Gospel.

The apostles understood this well. Peter, for example, on the Day of Pentecost, sought to move his Jewish neighbors to repentance and faith by speaking of Christ’s heavenly reign (Acts 2:33-36). Only days later he again sought to do the same, this time by assuring his kinsmen of their Messiah’s soon return, and of the restoration of all things spoken of by all the OT prophets (Acts 3:19-21). Similarly, Paul tried to rouse the slumbering conscience of the idolatrous Athenians by warning them of a coming Day of Judgment before the one true living God, a judgment that will occur at the hand of the risen Christ (Acts 17:31).

As for the apostle John, we read that it was given to him to behold an angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to all the inhabitants of the earth. And what exactly was that Gospel? The answer is surprising: “Fear God, and give him glory, because the hour his judgment has come” (Rev. 14:6-8)! But perhaps it is not so surprising after all. True, this text does not mention redemption by Christ, or justification by faith in him. However, it definitely supplies a powerful motive for trusting in the Redeemer, as well as clear instructions to believers about how they should preach him: They should preach him as the only One who can deliver us from the wrath to come (Mt. 3:7, Luke 3:7, Acts 4:12, 1 Thess. 1:10).

But what if the preacher is confused about the last things? What if he is unsure about “the hour of God’s judgment”: when it is coming, what will happen when it comes, who will do the judging, and what exactly he will do when he so judges? Yes, to the extent that an evangelist is unclear about his eschatology, to that extent his gospel will be truncated, and the power of his message—whether to saints or sinners—will be diminished.

Finally, the present spiritual warfare diminishes the saint’s perception and enjoyment of the glory of Christ and God. This dire consequence is upon us even now because the web of counterfeit eschatologies obscures two of the most radiant, mind-expanding, and heart-stirring components of the “mystery” of the Gospel: the heavenly mediatorial reign of Christ, and the Consummation that will seal it up when he comes again at the end of the present evil age. All Christians understand that God was pleased to glorify his Son (and himself) by his righteous life and atoning death. In the pages ahead, I will argue that he is equally eager to glorify his Son (and himself) by Christ’s heavenly reign, and by the Momentous Event that will bring it to a close. That any of these stupendous eschatological realities should be eclipsed in any way is injurious to our spiritual health, and must therefore be reckoned as a grievous loss for the Church Militant.

Here, then, is something of the weighty spiritual cost of our present eschatological confusion. By compromising the clarity of the Church’s Blessed Hope, it diminishes her expectation, confidence, joy, comfort in tribulation, power in preaching, and the soul-strengthening vision of the glory of Christ and God. For a lengthy season we have been paying this price, and have somehow managed to get by. Soon, however, we may not. Soon we will need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

BAD NEWS: WE CLOSED THE DOOR

 The bewildering array of eschatological options painfully confirms one of the core teachings of Scripture: We live in a fallen world. Because of indwelling sin in our members, and because of demonic deception, doctrinal error creeps into our theology. Even the most gifted, conscientious, and well-meaning Bible teachers can make mistakes. Worse still, they can stubbornly cling to views in which they are deeply invested, even when those views cannot stand up to thoughtful criticism. And amidst the resulting confusion and controversy, the people themselves grow discouraged: “If the experts can’t agree on eschatological truth, how can we?” In so speaking, they forget, of course, that God is pleased to test our love of his truth by making parts of it a little more difficult to understand; that in the face of such testing, he would not have us to fall into laziness, skepticism, or despair; that instead he wants us to emulate the noble-minded Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily to see if this or that particular teaching was true; and that he promises richly to reward those who will do this very thing (Mt 7:7f, Acts 17:1-12, 2 Peter 3:16). And yet, we fall. Therefore, with a little help from our enemies, we ourselves are the ones who close the door on our Blessed Hope.

 So let us pray: for our leaders, ourselves, and God’s people everywhere. Let us pray that God would humble us beneath his mighty hand; that he would make us teachable, dependent, cooperative, and diligent; that he would sovereignly apply the heavenly salve to our sin-darkened eyes; that he would deliver us from our strong adversary, clear the air of his foul smoke, and fill our vision once again with the radiance of his truth. In short, let us pray that in these last days the Lord of the Church will open the door once again, unveiling afresh the Blessed Hope of his beloved Bride.

GOOD NEWS: HE HAS THE KEYS!

My goal in this book is to contribute what I can to this worthy end. I have written it in faith: faith that our present eschatological confusion is not the norm; faith that God wants us to understand his revelation about the last things; faith that we really can; and faith that the truth is not nearly as complicated or difficult as some would have us believe.

In particular, I have written in the conviction that God—through Christ—has supplied us with a number of master keys for apprehending his eschatological truth in its entirety; that with these keys in hand, we will be able to arrive at deep conviction on such perennial flashpoints of eschatological controversy as the nature of the Kingdom of God, the stages of its appearing in history, the proper interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy, the meaning of the Millennium of Revelation 20, and—the great prize of all our theological labors—the design and structure of the Consummation.

Yes, the Lord Jesus himself holds the master keys to the truth about all the crucial themes of eschatology. And if he is pleased to place them in our hands, we shall once again be able to open the door, pass through, and find that we have rejoined our evangelical forefathers in an astonishingly beautiful and majestic world whose very air intoxicates with delight, joy, hope, and the power to serve.

CONCLUSION

In this Introduction I have suggested that evangelical confusion about eschatology is a sure sign of spiritual warfare on the theological front. But in a further effort to encourage you to enter the struggle for eschatological truth, I want to close by suggesting that it is also a sign of something else, and something far better: The High King of Heaven is returning soon!

In the pages ahead I will give my reasons for believing this is so. And if it is so, one thing is sure: The final theological struggle will be both fierce and painful. That does not necessarily mean, however, that it will be bad. As Martin Luther famously said, “The devil is God’s devil.” In other words, if Satan is indeed attacking the Church on the eschatological front, it is only because a good, wise, and sovereign God is pleased to let him, knowing that those attacks will redound not only to the greater glory of Christ, but also to the greater good of his people (Rom. 8:28-29).

Now, in the case before us, what exactly might that “greater good” be? Drawing generously from the words of the New Testament, my answer would go something like this:

In these last days, there must be eschatological factions among us, so that good Bereans everywhere, hungry for eschatological truth, might search the Scriptures daily to find out which view is right (Acts 17:11); so that the school of eschatological thought approved by the Lord may finally be recognized for what it is by the true spiritual Church (1 Cor. 11:9); so that God’s people may at last attain to the unity of the faith in the area of eschatology (Eph. 4:13); so that in the dark and difficult days just prior to Christ’s return, the saints will neither be deceived (Mt. 24:23-24), nor quickly shaken from their composure (2 Thess. 2:1-2), nor tossed to and fro by every wind of eschatological doctrine (Eph. 4:14); so that, on the contrary, they will stand strong, joyous, and hopeful, even amidst the most severe tribulations, which is a sure sign of salvation for them, but also of destruction for their enemies (Mt. 10:22, Phil. 1:28, 1 Thess. 1:4); so that in boldly holding forth the whole counsel of God—all the words of this life—they might effectively gather in what remains of God’s elect (Acts 20:27, Phil. 2:16, 2 Tim. 2:10); so that in the end, when the High King finally does appear in glory, they may be confident and unashamed, with eyes fixed steadfastly upon the heavens (1 Pet. 1:13, 1 John 2:28); so that having thoroughly sanctified them  by the washing of water with his Word, he might present them to himself a glorious Bride, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish before him, world without end (John 17:17, Eph. 5:25-7). Amen.

 

By Dean Davis