I became a Christian in 1974 whilst at university. Only a few weeks later a fellow member of the Christian Union, a technician in the computer department, suggested I read a book called The Clock Strikes, which set about saying how the return of Christ would be very soon. Christ would take the Christians on Earth at the time of his return back into heaven in an event called the rapture, and it would happen soon and quickly. I read it, and returned the book saying it was the book of Revelation too literally. That upset him, especially as I was studying physics, and therefore should be literally minded.
The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.
Is this the end?
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. ‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’
4 Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Messiah,” and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth-pains.
9 ‘Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:3-14 NIV UK
At first I was sceptical of literal readings on books like Revelation, Ezekiel and Daniel in the Bible, and especially this passage in Matthew’s Gospel. But my appetite for things about God was strong at that early age. I was a regular at the local Christian bookshop and devoured books, mostly autobiography and paperback, but some theology too. For a time it was my only reading other than the Bible.
One of the Books I read was The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay. This too took a literal view, and interpreted Matthew 24 as being about the end times. Then I got married, and into my home along with my wife came a Scofield Reference Bible. I followed the chain references in there: It was published by the Oxford University Press, which was good enough for me. I was hooked and became a dispensationalist.
My dispensationalist period did not last long. I started reading other books containing a different eschatology or study of the end times. At first I dismissed them, lots of conflicting theories was confusing but dispensationalism was simple. I opted for simple.
But then I bought another Hal Lindsay book, my fourth by that author. This one was called Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. In one chapter of that Book Lindsay argued that Pentecostalism and Charismatic renewal were from Satan because the gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer sent by God after “the perfect” had come, taking Paul’s chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, especially verse 10, to be a prophesy about the New Testament. I had two problems with that. The first was I can see no justification from the text of 1 Corinthians for that interpretation, and the second was reading through this passage I read that Jesus said in verse 6 that people claiming to be the Messiah, wars and rumours of wars are not signs of the end, as I had read. The end is not yet read most English translations, and the simplest explanation is that he meant that the end is not yet. Indeed, false Messiahs, wars and rumours of wars, famines and earthquakes have been happening since the time of Jesus.
Needless to say I am no longer a dispensationalist. But I do have a strong belief in the return of Christ. In fact it is stringer now than it was when I took Lindsey seriously.
I also have developed a love of the apocalyptic passages in the Bible. Then I took them as a textbook for the end, now I see them as writings of great beauty, poetry and optimism. The Old Testament books which use the most apocalyptic language, Daniel and Ezekiel, were written in exile. The Jews were being treated badly, Psalm 137 is a lament expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in the Babylonian exile. The book of Revelation is written in a time of Christian exile, and uses imagery from both Ezekiel and Daniel. I have learned to appreciate apocalyptic writing by listening to the voices of persecuted Christians rather than the voice of comfortable theologians in their universities.
Christians are being persecuted for their faith today at a rate greater than ever before, even by the Romans. They take comfort from passages such as that of the souls who have died in the great tribulation under the altar of God because tribulation, persecution, is what they are going through and the passage shows that God does love and care for them. It is a poem of love for the persecuted.
Matthew 24 is also a poem of love for the persecuted. Jesus warned his disciples that they would be persecuted, hated and betrayed by people they trusted; that false Messiahs would arise and the Gospel would be preached to the end of the world. How comforting it must have been when they saw the temple fall and knew that Jesus had predicted this. God was still in control. Jesus said that the temple would be thrown down. All this had happened or was happening when the temple was destroyed in 70AD. Jesus said the temple would be destroyed, the disciples said when? This looks like a direct answer to that part of the disciples’ question.
We are living in a period of two kingdoms. The kingdom of God has come on earth but the kingdom of this world is still around until Jesus returns. We are being warned by Jesus of what it will be like to live in God’s kingdom by God’s srandards, whilst those around live by the world’s standards. The persecution of Christians more than any other group in the world is not a sign that God has lost, but that God is winning. It was said in the past that the blood of the martyrs was the seeds of the church. This is still true.
If you want to know more about the persecuted church today and how you can help them, the Open Doors charity is a good source: