Monday, February 21, 2011

Israel in the Eschata, Part 1 of 3

As a Lutheran growing up, the subject of Biblical eschatology was never discussed, preached on, or taught in my church. I knew that God would someday come to “judge the quick and the dead” because I repeated it from the creeds. I knew the Bible had major and minor prophets, but their predictions were part of history. One of the reasons the subject was more or less ignored is that Lutherans inherited as much from the Catholic Church. Catholicism emphasized that there was enough to do to keep personal inventory of the different types of sin in order to possibly make it into heaven, bypass purgatory, and skip hell. St. Augustine and Aquinas had interpreted Biblical eschatology, including the Millennium, as symbolic, thus rendering any talk of the future as futile. The task of interpreting scripture belonged to the church and they had already proven to be saner than any number of prophetic charlatans that had wilted when their predictions didn’t come true. And to think that some of them even put the label of Antichrist on the Pope!
Biblical prophecy can be broken down into those prophecies that have already come true (such as the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem) and those that are yet future (eschata). In this special subset of prophetic prose there are certain themes and subjects which appear over and over again in the Bible. They are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which many have tried to fit into the proper sequence, but have been hampered because the box has no picture on it. Catholics, Lutherans, and liberal Protestants have left the puzzle box in the attic, so to speak, as a relic of the past or as a reminder of subjects they would rather not consider. Evangelicals and Messianics have emptied the pieces onto a table and are trying to solve the puzzle. While one can make a case that studying prophecies about the future has no relevance to everyday life, the fact remains that it touches upon many chapters and verses in the Bible and ignoring it cannot be what God intended. After all, the Book of Revelation says in 1:3: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” 
One of the key differentiators between these groups is how/what they think about Israel’s past, present, and future. For those who openly preach replacement theology (e.g., the Church is the New Israel: Catholics, Lutherans, and others of like mind) the approach is often to ignore or allegorize the edited text and condemn Israel for its actions. By contrast, Evangelicals and Messianics believe in a literal (except where it is obviously symbolic or idiomatic) interpretation of the text where Israel and Jerusalem are kept distinct from the Church and there is an acknowledged purpose and plan for Israel in the future. It is not surprising that Evangelicals are some of Israel’s biggest supporters. 
How one thinks about Eschatology, or the study of “Last Things”, comes down to how you interpret and arrange these pieces of the puzzle:
Book of Revelation
Millennium (thousand years)
Restoration of Israel
Third Temple
Kingdom of God
Resurrection (First and Second)
Final White Throne Judgement
Heaven and Hell
Second Coming
Gog and Magog
Two Witnesses
Daniel’s 70 Weeks
Here is a brief comparison from my limited point of view, on how the Catholic, Lutheran, Evangelical, and Messianic viewpoints deal with these puzzle pieces. 
For the Catholic,the Church Age began at Pentecost in the book of Acts and it will continue until the Second Coming. According to Augustine, Jerome, and Aquinas the 1000 years mentioned in the book of Revelation are symbolic. The People of God (i.e., Christians) have replaced Israel as God’s Chosen people; and are the New Israel. The Old Covenant has been replaced by the New Covenant. Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of God and gave the keys to Peter and future popes.  Someday, history will come to an end, the last judgement will occur and everyone will be sorted out into either heaven, hell, or Purgatory, if their mortal sins weren’t taken care of. It’s as simple as that.
Lutherans, like Catholics, are “amillennialists”, which means they believe there is no special period of time called the “Millennium”.  New Testament Christians are the new Israel, which is to say that God is through with the Jewish nation. Though Jesus defeated Satan, evil persists and the church must still battle against evil.  At the very end of the present Age, Satan will be set free for a short time and Christ will return (Second Coming) to defeat Satan completely; the resurrection of the dead and the Final Judgement occur soon after. A person’s eternal destination is dependent on their relationship to Jesus Christ. Eternal salvation comes only through God’s grace through faith in Christ. Heaven will be experienced in a heavenly place and eternity will begin.
Here is an interesting sidebar. One of the most influential Lutheran theologians in the 1800’s was Franz Delitzsch. I mentioned him in a previous post called “Jewish Sermon on the Mount”. Here is an excerpt from that post:
“In 1813 in Leipzig, Germany, Franz Delitzsch was born with his family and friends attending his baptism in the Lutheran Church. One of those friends was a Jewish man named Franz Julius Hirsch, who became the spiritual mentor of the younger Franz. Franz grew up to be a brilliant theologian with a twist: he became the most knowledgeable Christian Talmudist of his day, and perhaps of all time. He had a “born again” experience at the University of Leipzig where he became fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, and Arabic; and later became a distinguished professor in 1834. He called the New Testament the greatest achievement of Jewish Literature and authored his own translation of it into Hebrew. Franz’s translation went through 11 editions with thorough peer reviews in between each one; at his death some 60,000 copies had been distributed throughout Europe. It is said that this document was instrumental for bringing thousands of Jewish people to faith in Yeshua.” 
What I would like to add is that in the mid 1800’s Delitzsch was part of a group of German theologians who were planning to go to America. For some reason, Delitzsch decided to stay in Germany while the rest went to America and founded the Lutheran Church Missouri synod (which is the synod that I belonged to). I wonder how that body might have been influenced differently had Franz been there as one of the founders. 
The Catholic and Lutheran amillennial views that I have just presented are short because they don’t have to deal with the puzzle pieces. The Evangelical view is decidedly more complex because it has to explain the puzzle pieces as they are presented in the Bible. Its view of Israel is driven by Genesis 12:3—“I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curses you.”
I have a book that I bought in 1968 called The Thousand Years by Nathaniel West. It was written in 1889 and reprinted; its writing style is very eloquent and it has 482 pages. I probably got it because it had to do with the Millennium which was a subject I knew little about. I never did read it all the way through - until last week. The very first text in The Thousand Years is a paragraph by Delitzsch; here is but one sentence: “To whom do we owe it that the Church of today believes in a glorious future for Israel, and sees, in Old Testament history, a Pre-history and fore-sight of Israel’s End-history, and in the Old Testament Prophecy a far-sight, not merely of the Gentile Church, but of Israel in a literal sense?”

I will take some of its highlighted passages and add them to the next post.

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