You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west. Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.Jesus – Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27-8
(Photo credit – Jesus film project)
When faced with the kaleidoscopic symbolism found in the Biblical Book of Revelation, many readers of the New Testament throw up their hands and decide to ignore it. It is among the least read books of the Christian Scriptures, although among the most written about in the last half century or so. Those who favour it believe that it holds the secret to understanding “the Last Days” or “End Times” and deciphering when the “Great Tribulation” will begin and what that will look and be like.
For instance, certain verses in the book suggest that that terrible last age will last seven years and be characterized by the coming into global rule of “the Beast”, seconded by the great “False Prophet”, his main henchman. Behind the Beastly throne stands the Great Dragon, Satan, whose spirit the Beast incarnates and whose word the False Prophet speaks with deadly authority.
One popular school of interpretation among Conservative Evangelicals includes the Pre-Millennial “Great Rapture”. This particular approach to the overture of the Great Tribulation (and, by extension, Revelation) is largely rooted in a brand of North American (and especially United States) Evangelicalism mostly held by whites. There it has taken deep cultural root, while many Evangelicals of “colour” find it a largely racist, militarist, nationalist stream that contributes to their own continuing exclusion from the mainstream of American society. Unfortunately, there is rather good reason for their perception. The early genesis of this peculiar form of eschatology is found among some eccentric sects of extreme mid-19th Century English Brethren (Darbyites and Millerites) and offshoots, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It is rather concerning that the presently favoured (North American) Evangelical doctrine about the “End Times” was born among such origins. It crossed into more mainstream and “respectable” Evangelical avenues largely thanks to Schofield’s innovation of Dispensationalism. This took root in the Pentecostal Movement, and later in the charismatic prophetic strand of American Evangelicalism, and now in a generalized way across many denominational lines.
The Pre-Millennial Rapture perspective was thus unknown until less than two hundred years ago. The ancient Christians knew nothing of it. In current use some verses of the Apostolic writings are interpreted to say that it was the original teaching of the Apostles and what Jesus meant in a few of His Apocalyptic sayings, but for 1800 years the greatest interpreters of the Scriptures said nothing about this understanding of how the End Times would play out.
Sadly, many of those who hold most steadfastly to this special understanding of Eschatology (the study of the last or final things) seem unprepared and unwilling to consider very powerful arguments that place the accuracy of this whole scheme into serious doubt.
For instance, in the first part of this series we noted that seven is one of those especially important numbers in The apocalypse. Throughout the rest of the Scriptures, its primary meaning is “complete, whole, full, perfect” and not primarily, although it may be that sometimes, a mathematical quantity. Tribulation means “great trouble”. Anyone who lives past the age of seven knows that trouble and even great trouble is not and cannot be limited to a seven-year window. And such is true in history too. The primary meaning is not seven literal years, but the fullness of time till “the age of the Gentiles is done” as Jesus put it in talking of the destruction and desecration of Jerusalem.
Yeshua (Jesus) said “In this world/age/time/life, you will have tribulation/great trouble. But take comfort, for I have overcome the world (the brokenness of the creation and the pains of our existence).” Seven stands for something quintessential and “full-up” with regard to many things in other references. To insist that in this single instance it must be a literal time so it fits with a certain modern way of interpreting the most symbolic and allegorical of all Biblical books does not do it justice and even distorts it. The real point is that very great trouble is always to be expected in this age before it ends with the coming of the “Son of Man”. Jesus warned, “If the Son of Man had not returned, no one would be left,” and “When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith in the world?” That is a perennial existential question.
The “prophesied time” has already been much longer than seven years. There has already been unimaginable tribulation in many places over the last two thousand or so years since the Ascension of Christ. Ask the tens of thousands who died in the Roman persecutions under some of the most horrific tortures ever devised. Or the millions who have died in “religious wars”, or under Nazi, Soviet, Chinese Communist, and Islamist persecutions. It is the filling up, the finishing that is being emphasized, not the specific number of days, weeks, months, and years that we need to be counting down.
In describing the signs (in The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, verses 27 and following)that will accompany or precede his Second Coming Jesus says:
You see, the royal appearing of the Son of Man [Jesus’ own term for himself] will be like the lightning that comes from the east and flashes across to the west. Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.
Vultures gather where dead bodies lie. The Son of Man comes and is coming and is to be looked for at all times, and all the more in the times of great trouble when the bodies pile up.
Straightway… after the suffering that those days will bring, “The sun will turn to darkness, and the moon won’t give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will shake.”
We are not being told that the universe will cease following the laws of physics here. We are being told in Apocalyptic language to expect the most extreme forms of evil and spiritual darkness to break through. It will seem as though all of existence is crashing down. There may well be physical phenomena at play creating the blocking of light. In God’s order, the physical and spiritual are one reality, not two. The heavenly bodies also speak of “the spiritual powers of wickedness in heavenly places” (Ephesians chapter 6:10 and following) which battle against the coming of the Kingdom of God with all their might and main.
And the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven; then all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. He will send his messengers [angels] with a great trumpet-blast, and they will collect his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other….
Nobody knows what day or time this will happen…
In His own time, the Messiah will break through and come (again) to deal with the rebellion and chaos of satanic lawlessness, but trying to lay it all out in a modern schemata is a diversion. Moderns (even modern Western Christians, who are people of their own time) want to calculate it all like we calculate an engineering problem, but we cannot box God or His plans in no matter how minutely we dissect the verses that tantalize us. It is our modern rationalism that drives us to do what the ancients knew better than to attempt. It is actually weak faith, not strong faith (trust) that drives us to this kind of obsession.
The royal appearing of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah. What does that mean? Well, in those days, before the flood, they were eating and drinking, they were getting married and giving children in marriage, right up to the day when Noah went into the ark. They didn’t know about it until the flood came and swept them all away. That’s what it’ll be like at the royal appearing of the Son of Man.
This is transparently not about being snatched out of peril, but being swept up in it because of rejecting the way out (salvation) God has provided.
On that day there will two people working in the field. One will be taken; the other will be left. There will be two women grinding corn in the mill. One will be taken; the other will be left.
In this illustration, Yeshua was speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, not the Great Rapture at the End of Days. The whole description is of a terrible siege as per the Roman Army’s masterly way of taking strong cities and fortresses. It is also what happened in the fields around Jerusalem when Titus’s juggernaut descended on that area to lay siege to Israel’s great city.
So keep alert! You don’t know what day your master will come. But bear this in mind: if the householder had known what time of night the burglar was going to come, he would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house get broken into. So you must be ready! The Son of Man is coming at a time you don’t expect. (The Kingdom New Testament, a Contemporary Translation)
We think the “burglar” in this little parable is the bad-guy and the householder is the good-guy, but the whole context turns that on its head. The “householder” is the strong-man (as he is called in a parallel passage) who invaded the house and usurped the property of the rightful owner. It is the Satan who has done this to the beautiful world God created. The “burglar” is the rightful owner coming back to claim his own. That is why Jesus says “he will come like a thief in the night”.
It is time we started seeing our time more clearly by shedding some distorted lenses we have fallen into using for the last two centuries or more. It is time to also begin to see the lamentable condition of the Master’s House partly caused by distortions of reality we have adopted in the name of the Kingdom of God since ancient times.
TO BE CONTINUED