|The Church, The Tribulation, and The New Millennium
by Kenneth V. Ryland Millennial speculation is rampant, and there are as many theories of what the new millennium will bring as there are "prophets" to proclaim them. There are secular views, New Age views, and Christian views of the importance of the year 2000. Most of the Christian speculation about the coming millennium revolves around the return of Jesus Christ to earth. On all sides we hear of fulfilled Bible prophecy. The state of the state of Israel constantly draws our attention as preachers harangue about the coming Temple, the abomination of desolation, the Great Tribulation, and Armageddon.
Let's assume for a moment that all these pronouncements about the return of Christ and the events leading up to it are true. What are you doing to prepare for His return? Let me restate the question: What are you doing to prepare yourself and your loved ones for the period immediately prior to the return of Christ? I think it best to put the question in that manner because there is a tendency to skip past the coming Tribulation with little thought about what it means to go through a period described as one of "... great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:21-22). Most Christians have a very vague notion of what these two verses mean for them personally. To most their seriousness is comparable to going through a divorce, losing a loved one, or having to file for bankruptcy. Have you ever heard someone say something like, "If we just 'tough it out,' it will be 'no problem.' It may be a little tougher than other things we have gone through, but, hey, if we just 'ratchet up' our faith a little, we will make it fine"?
But will we?
Since we are dealing with "What ifs," I would like to set this whole scenario in a different light. What if all this turmoil in the world today is a harbinger of something we really do not expect? After all, does God count time by the Roman calendar? Does the year 2000 really mean anything to him? What if the coming of Christ is actually 50 to 100 years off, and these dark clouds on the world's political horizon are a portent of a protracted period of great evil in human history with no prospect of Jesus' immediate return? How would you as a Christian prepare yourself to live (and die) in this kind of world? This would indeed be real tribulation. Could you skip past it with no plan for dealing with such an eventuality?
To amplify this view further, think about some of the circumstances that make our time one of the most dangerous in history. Just pick up the newspaper. What soothing headlines do you read? Or, turn on the network news in the evening. Is there any comfort there? Now, project today's trends some 50 or more years into the future. For the sake of our discussion, let's put the return of Christ at the year 2053, just out of reach of your lifetime, if you are of middle-age. Now, look at the world from the point of view that you will be gone before Jesus comes. How will you prepare yourself and your family to live in a world that is increasingly hostile to everything you stand for? Please understand that ours is not the first generation of Christians to face such alienation from the world. We in the West have been spared what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have routinely suffered, and we have a hard time believing that our own comfortable circumstances could change. But, Jesus nowhere said, "In this world you will have comfort." What he said was, "In this world you will have tribulation," which means that our life of ease has an expiration date.
You may be thinking right now, "what a negative article! I wonder if there is anything better in this magazine." Well, I cannot blame you if you are thinking such thoughts. I had to go through a litany of emotions and psychological defenses before I looked at this whole matter squarely, and I am not yet sure that I fully grasp the seriousness of this subject. Nonetheless, I believe that this matter of the state of the world and our preparation for the bad times that loom ahead needs to be faced head-on. Otherwise, we will never have an adequate defense or preparation for it. So, the object of this article is not to incite fear in you. Rather, it is to help you confront this "thing in the dark," that no one wants to look at (i.e., our less-than-rosy future), and find ways to deal with it.
What makes this topic even less palatable is that many people are making lots of money, buying new homes, building businesses, sending kids to college, and in general, enjoying a prosperous existence. The movie theaters and restaurants are packed. The supermarket shelves are full. People are planning new homes, starting families, and planning for retirement. With all this, why worry about "the things we cannot control." After all, this could go on for quite a few more years, couldn't it?
The Judgment of God
So, on what basis does God judge nations? On the basis of national sins! Can you begin to see why our Western nations, particularly the one I live in, the United States, cannot escape God's judgment? When God looks down on us, he does not see a righteous nation. He sees a nation brimming over with corruption, one in which adultery and homosexuality are commonplace. Crime fills our streets as bribes and extortion fill our halls of government. He sees us killing our own babies and calling it birth control. Even worse, he sees our doctors (at our request) performing partial-birth abortions where babies are killed before they are fully delivered so that their body parts can be harvested. And, we declare such things to be our right. How long do you suppose that God will tolerate such arrogance? Our politicians take bribes, even from our enemies, and call them "soft money" contributions. God's judgment is upon this nation, and his judgment always brings tribulation and terror.
We who were weaned by the Almighty and raised into a nation of refugees who fled from religious and political tyranny in other countries have now become encouragers of the forces of darkness. In the United States the first act of Congress after the nation gained its independence was to appropriate money to buy Bibles for schools. How far down we have plummeted! Our Supreme Court once ruled that we are a Christian nation, but we now threaten with fine and imprisonment those who would dare to post the 10 Commandments in the classroom or the courtroom. We have from the beginning declared to the world that we are to be called by the name of Jesus Christ, a Christian nation, yet we have become fat and decadent, and have made the whole world drunk with our sins. Instead of using the wealth with which God blessed us to bring the righteousness of Christ to the world, we use God's blessings to drag the world into slavery and hell after us.
Whether we like it or not, people in non-Christian nations view Western nations, particularly the U.S., as the representatives of Christ in this world. As God told Israel anciently (Deuteronomy 4:5-9), the nations will look at his people as an example of who he is and how righteous he is. If we become corrupt, non-Christians come to believe that the God of Christianity is corrupt and not worth following. We make ourselves a stumbling block to seeking non-believers and turn them away from God toward Satan's panoply of religions and ideologies. Jesus said that "offenses will come, but woe to him [in our case, "woe to that nation"] by whom such offenses come" (Matthew 18:7).
What Is Most Important to You?
My own observation is that we Christians in the U.S. and other Western countries are not prepared for any reduction in lifestyle, let alone persecution. Yet, we continually read the words of Jesus who said that "if they hated me, they will hate you also," and "a man's enemies will be those of his own household," and "there will come a time when men will kill you thinking they are doing God a service" (Jn 15:18, Mt 10:36, Jn 16:2). When we hear these words from our Savior, we generally think, "Yes, I know. It's going to be really bad," and get up from our seats in church and continue on as if nothing had happened. What few realize is that we thought the whore who sits as a queen was someone else, but it is we who have turned into this loathsome creature. Being a whore is an attitude; it has nothing to do with who your ancestors were. It has been our choice that our nation walk the anti-God path we are on. We choose our leaders, our entertainment, and our ethics. We are like the baby girl whom God saw as he passed along the road. The child was bloodied and abandoned at the side of the road. God had compassion on the child and picked her up and carried her to his home where he washed her, cleaned her wounds, and dressed her in the finest of garments. She grew up in his house where he raised her with loving care. When she reached womanhood, he married her, but her heart was not with him. Her soul wantonly besought every passerby to come into her bed, and she abandoned the home God had made for her. Read this moving story in chapter 16 of Ezekiel.
It is my firm belief that in this age in which the stench of our national sins has risen to fill the nostrils of God, we must not hang on to the vanishing things of this world, but to Christ and each other. Our material prosperity has made us lazy and complacent, and we must awaken ourselves to see our own spiritual nakedness so that we are not swept away in the tide of evil that is now washing over our vaunted Western culture. Our civilization is dying, and we must not allow our Christian virtue to die with it.
What about you? What kind of adjustment could you make to "harsher" circumstances? Where will you get your strength when they offer you a loaf to feed your starving child in exchange for renouncing Christ? In this age of splintering relationships and splinter groups, will there be a group of faithful fellow Christians who can rally to your aid? Jesus said, "Wherever two or more are gathered in My name, there will I be also." Are we Christians so divided among ourselves that we will not even be able to find "two or more" who will intercede for us "in His name?" Our life in Christ is "in the body." This is not to say that we do not have spiritual life outside our fellowship with other Christians. Rather, it means that each of us is nourished in Christ within the body of Christthat is, in fellowship with other believers. Jesus set up the Church that way and did not intend that we should be separated islands of individuality, each with its own mutually alienating set of doctrines. Jesus knew that we would be better off in close fellowship with other believers than by ourselves.
Again, we are back to the original question: How will you as a Christian prepare yourself to live in a culture in which sin and violence are rampant, governmental control is absolute, and to be a Christian means to be an outlaw?
First Things First
Need it be said that this situation is not healthy for the body of Christ as a whole or for the manifold groups that disperse in a thousand different directions with most of the people never speaking again to the fellow believers they left behind.
There is a cure for this malaise, and it is very simple. It would allow people to hold to their own beliefs and at the same time fellowship with others who may not share their convictions 100%. Achieving a truce in the doctrinal wars is, I believe, absolutely critical in preserving fellowship and friendship in the body of Christ during the very difficult days ahead. And, I believe, your life depends on it. Remember that Jesus stated that he prayed we would be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21). Being one does not mean that Christians refuse to speak to each other.
In Matthew 6:33 our Savior clearly laid out our priorities: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." Lack of complete understanding of this verse has contributed to the breakdown in fellowship that we see around us. Most have been taught to view Jesus' statement in a futuristic context. We think of the kingdom of God as a future reign that he establishes at his second coming. That is true, but incomplete in its explanation. When we seek first the kingdom of God, we seek to allow Christ to reign within us now, in this present age. The fact that he rules in us now means that we will have the right to rule with him when he returns. His righteousness is established in us through his ruling presence in us. We have often heard of having a "personal relationship with Christ." When we "seek first the kingdom," we mean to establish a personal relationship with Christ and allow him to be Lord over us. He rules.
Much of the fear of deception that drives many believers derives from the lack of a personal relationship with our Lord. We often tend to make intense, intellectually oriented, Bible study our foundation for following God rather than faith in the person of Jesus Christ. We forget that he is the one who pronounced the words of Scripture either directly or through his apostles and prophets. So, our focal point must be on him, not just on the words. The words are a reflection of him, but they do not take the place of him. When Jesus said, "I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you," (John 14:18) it was in the discussion of sending "another Comforter," the Holy Spirit, to dwell in the believer so that the believer could have constant, personal contact with him. If we concentrate on doctrinal studies outside the context of our personal relationship with Christ and our oneness with other believers, we wind up like the Pharisees with heads full of knowledge and hearts of stone. We create lists of what is acceptable and unacceptable, and make these items our criterion for fellowship, instead of our fellowship in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The things that make us acceptable to Christ must be the things that make us acceptable to each other. If we are to survive the dark days ahead, it is imperative that we Christians emphasize our sameness in Christ rather than our differences over doctrine. Otherwise, we might find ourselves turning each other in to the authorities when our day of persecution comes thinking that we are doing God a service. Do we not remember the parable of the wheat and the tares? Jesus did not give anyone of us license to uproot and destroy others whom we perceive as tares (we being the wheat, or course). He said to let them grow together until the harvest, and they would be separated at that time (Mt 13:30). And, what about the admonition of the apostle Paul: "Who are you to judge another man's servant? To his own master he stands or falls"? (Ro 14:4) No believer is the master of any other believer. He stands or falls only to Christ. We must have the mind of Christ in us to allow each other to respond to and grow in Christ without our interference.
Confidence to Stand
There is yet another factor that contributes greatly to good and constructive fellowship with other believers. That is the confidence that is gained by growing in a personal relationship with Him. There are several reasons why this is so.
This principle can be seen better by contrasting it with the common mode of understanding among many believers. The Word of God and the Law of God are often used by Christians as the measure of all things. This kind of thinking breeds insecurity for the simple reason that we don't all view these things the same. If my understanding of God's Word is challenged, the most natural reaction is to become defensive and clash with the challenger as if Christianity were only a contest of ideas and philosophies. Often Christians feel they must "win the argument" because their faith is in their arguments and their reasoning about the Scripture, rather than in Christ. Their sense of security with God is built upon their own reasoning about God. Of course, this approach assumes that if someone has greater knowledge of Scripture than they, he by definition has greater insight and authority in matters of God. It ignores the admonition of Christ that "whoever wants to be first must be your slave" (Mt 20:26-27, NIV). Rather, it assumes that the "greatest" will be the most "doctrinally pure."
All we have to do is look at the spiritually deaf and blind Pharisees of Jesus' day to know that the "scriptural/doctrinal study approach" alone does not work. Yet, many Christians have fallen into the same trap and use Scripture knowledge as a means of judging and gaining authority over other Christians. By its very nature, this approach to spiritual understanding leads to competitive strife and undermines unity and harmony among the brethren.
I hope no one will misunderstand: Knowledge of Scripture is very valuable and essential to learning what God is like and to spiritual growth, but not if used in the manner described. When employed as the ultimate test of spirituality, it will always tear down rather than build up the body of Christ.
The basis of our confidence before God is how well we know him, not how much we know about him. There is no higher compliment that the Scripture ever pays to anyone than that he is a "friend of God" (Ex 33:11, Isa 41:8). This is precisely what Jesus explained to his disciples, that those who are close to him are not servants, but friends (Jn 15:13-15). Our insight into the meaning of Scripture is enhanced by Christ's Spirit in us. When we humbly seek his will through prayer and study, God's Spirit shows us how the principles of Scripture apply to us. To God, Scripture is never a set of intellectual propositions to be debated.
Our acceptance to God is not governed by our acceptance to any other human being or their view of Scripture. Understanding that the basis of our acceptance to God is our closeness, submission and obedience to Christ, not "knowledge" of Scriptureliberating us from all sorts of fears, including the one that assumes we can somehow be deceived into receiving the mark of the Beast, or some other damnable heresy. After all, every heresy is based on intellectual propositions and competing ideas about God and his will. If our relationship with Christ himself is deep and secure, we will know and hear our Master's voice as he said (Jn 10:27). We will not be deceived by false shepherds. When we know him as friend, no one can snatch us out of his hand (Jn 10:28).
Winning the War
If I were the enemy of Christianity, my strategy would be to divide one against another, alienate brother from brother and sister from sister, so that I could pick them off one by one. As a combined, spiritually unified force Christians are too formidable for a frontal assault. To destroy the body of Christ, it must be done one believer at a time, and one of the best ways to attack the individual Christian is to splinter his fellowship group by presenting competing interpretations of Scripture. Those whose relationship with Christ is weak and whose faith is based on "doctrinal tests" will become alienated from the group. That way, the body of Christ will be made ineffectual during the times of upheaval that lie ahead of us, and those who have alienated themselves from other Christians will be less likely to be able to stand, nor will they be willing to stand in the gap for estranged brothers and sisters.
There are some profound things said in Scripture about the Church in the end time. One is that the people of God will "do exploits," (Da 11:32). Many assume that they have nothing to worry about because this scriptural declaration is absolute. Not true! We might see a great fulfillment of this prophecy or a weak one. The degree to which we saints "do exploits" depends on our faith and our closeness to God. Please remember that the prophecy of the destruction of Nineveh did not come to passnot because God lied, but because the people changed in their relationship to God. The prophecy was conditional. Likewise, the extent of the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy depends on our closeness to and faith in Christ. Notice also that this prophecy does not say "the individual of God," but the "people of God." This implies fellowship and unity among God's people. When the Bible states that the saints will do exploits, it does not mean that there will be a bunch of Lone Rangers out there acting like Hollywood heroes. It will probably be 10 or 12 Christians in a room praying while one of them, selected by Jesus Christ through the Spirit, steps out front to face the authorities and do the "exploits." This is how it is being done right now in places like China, and I don't think we can expect things to be any different when our time comes.
Our strength is in our unity because our unity is in Christ. Division leads to weakness and destruction. That is why one of the greatest condemnations in the Bible is reserved for "those who cause dissension among the brethren" (Pr 6:16-19). Jesus emphasized that "where two or three are gathered in My name, there will I be also" (Mt 18:20). It is obvious from this passage that Jesus intended for us to understand that our greatest strength comes when two or more are gathered in his name. We are at war, and the strategies of war must be employed. When our pioneer forefathers faced hostile Indian attacks, they circled the wagons so they could protect each other and repel the attackers in a unified effort. Forts along the frontier served not just as a refuge, but as a means of unifying the people to battle their common enemies.
The Good News
It has always been the purpose of God to do us good and not evil. By seeking first his kingdom (his rule) and his righteousness, we are open to receiving the promise Jesus made: "and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt 6:33). And, we put ourselves into the position of being able to share God's blessings to us with other believers. There will be times when our abundance will satisfy another's needs and when their blessings will bless us, but this can only happen if we are all attached to the vine (Jesus Christ), which means that we are all part of the same body, just different branches.
It is through Jesus, the Vine, that God's strength flows to us so that we can stand against the enemy, and through that strength one will be able to put a thousand to flight. Two will put ten thousand to flight (Dt 32:30). Notice in this verse the multiplying effect of two facing the enemy as opposed to one.
The good news of the Good Book is that in the end we win, and our triumph comes from belonging to Jesus Christto his body. The apostle Paul summed this up very nicely in Ephesians 4, when he wrote that the purpose of preaching and teaching was
There is nothing any of us wants more than to see the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The prospect of slogging it out for the next 30, 40, or 50 years is unpalatable. To be sure, there will be great joy for us at Jesus' return, and the quicker, the better. However, should he not return until the year 2053, what will we do? Will we finally be forced to think about mending broken relationships that we have refused to consider because of our belief in Jesus' immediate return? If we are going to have to live here for a while, should we not seek to be reconciled to all our alienated brethren? If Jesus comes in three years, that lets us off the hook. We can go on alienating and being alienated, offending and being offendednever forgiving (except that our Lord will never accept such an attitude. How can we ever love our enemies if we cannot even love our friends?). There is a very good reason the Bible says that everything in the law is summed up in "love your neighbor as yourself" (Ro 13:8-10; see also Php 2:3). After all, Jesus loved you more than his own life.