Dark Days Indeed

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12 ESV

Helping Christ-followers understand the events surrounding the end times was important to Paul because he knew that knowledge would dramatically influence the way they lived their lives in the present. Without a firm grasp on the divine timeline of the last days, believers in every age would find themselves easy prey to every false doctrine and spurious opinion that came along. Even Jesus warned that there would be those who showed up claiming to be Him and declaring themselves to be the Messiah.

“Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many.” – Matthew 24:4 NLT

Without a well-developed understanding of God’s plans for those final days, people will be susceptible to the claims of false teachers and self-proclaimed prophets. Jesus warned His disciples.

“And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold.” – Matthew 24:11-12 NLT

So, when Paul heard that false teachers were causing angst and anxiety among the Thessalonians by declaring the day of the Lord had already begun, he felt strongly compelled to correct their error. As discussed in yesterday’s lesson, “the day of the Lord” refers to that future period of time which includes the Tribulation, the Second Coming, the Millennial Kingdom, and the Great White Throne Judgment. According to Paul, the Rapture of the church will be the event that sets all of these things in motion. With the removal of all believers from the earth, the restraining influence of the church will create a moral and spiritual vacuum that will allow wickedness to spread like wildfire.

In verse 7, Paul refers to an individual who acts as a restraining influence on evil and prevents the coming of “the man of lawlessness…the son of destruction” (2 Thessalonians 2:3 ESV).

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. – 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV

This “restrainer” is the Holy Spirit, who inhabits the church and every single believer. With the rapture of the church, all believers living at that time will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air. Then they will receive their glorified bodies and return to heaven with Christ. With their departure, the primary means by which the Holy Spirit restrains wickedness in the world will be gone. Whether we realize it or not, the presence of Spirit-filled Christians on this planet plays a powerful role in holding back the forces of darkness. Jesus stated, “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14 ESV), but with the church’s rapture, the light will be removed, allowing the darkness to envelop the world as never before.

That is why this period of time is called the Tribulation. It will be a literal seven-year span of time that begins the day of the Lord and will feature cataclysmic events and divine judgments that will be unprecedented in their intensity. Jesus described it in rather stark terms.

“…there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive.” – Matthew 24:21-22 NLT

There is no doubt that evil was running rampant in Paul’s day. In fact, he said, “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7 ESV). The New Living Translation puts it this way: “this lawlessness is already at work secretly.” The apostle John describes much of the false teaching that was infiltrating the church as “the spirit of the Antichrist.”

…if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. – 1 John 4:3 NLT

The evil influence of this “man of lawlessness” was already alive and well in the 1st-Century because he will be nothing more than a tool of Satan. In the book of Revelation, John provides details concerning his vision of the Antichrist, describing him as “the beast” who receives his power and authority from “the dragon” (Satan).

…to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.…and the whole earth marveled as they followed the beast. And they worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” – Revelation 13:2, 3-4 ESV

While there will be a literal, real-life Antichrist who rules and reigns during the Tribulation, the spirit or attitude of the Antichrist has been alive in every generation. Paul warned Timothy that the last days would be filled with apostasy and a level of rebellion like nothing the world has ever witnessed before.

…in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT

And, even though Paul is describing the last days, he warns Timothy to “Stay away from people like that!” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT). Why? Because those kinds of people can be found in every generation. But in the last days, they will represent the majority of people on earth and they will eagerly take part in what Paul describes as the “rebellion” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). The Greek word is apostasia, from which we get our English word, “apostasy.” It means, “a falling away” or “a defection from the truth.” Remember what Paul told Timothy. The people living in the last days “will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly” (2 Timothy 3:5 NLT).

Paul describes Antichrist’s powerful influence over the world during the last days.

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them. – 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 NLT

John adds his own description of Antichrist’s reign of terror.

Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for forty-two months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation. And all the people who belong to this world worshiped the beast. – Revelation 13:5-8 NLT

Notice John’s mention of worship. And remember what Paul told Timothy: “They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.” Those living in the last days will worship Antichrist, who slanders the name of God and sets himself up as a replacement for God. Paul describes him as one “who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4 ESV).

The prophet Daniel was also given a vision of this future world leader.

…a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people. He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. – Daniel 8:23-25 NLT

In the book of Revelation, John describes the creation of an idol, made to represent the Antichrist, which is set up in the temple of God. And the false prophet, the second-lieutenant of the Antichrist, “was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain” (Revelation 13:15 ESV).

These will not be ordinary, run-of-the-mill days. As Jesus said, “there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began” (Matthew 24:21 NLT). And Paul indicates that those days will be marked by a level of deception and spiritual delusion like nothing the world has ever seen before. People will “refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them” (2 Thessalonians 2:10 NLT). And, as a result, “God will cause them to be greatly deceived, and they will believe these lies” (2 Thessalonians 2:11 NLT).

During the Tribulation, God will bring a wave of unprecedented judgments on the world. He will reveal Himself through a series of cataclysmic plagues and meteorological catastrophes. And while those who endure these judgments will recognize His hand behind them, they will still refuse to repent of their sins and turn to Him.

But the people who did not die in these plagues still refused to repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. They continued to worship demons and idols made of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood—idols that can neither see nor hear nor walk! And they did not repent of their murders or their witchcraft or their sexual immorality or their thefts. – Revelation 9:20-21 NLT

And as Paul sadly states, “they will be condemned for enjoying evil rather than believing the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:12 NLT).

The end times will be marked by rampant rebellion and level of spiritual blindness like nothing we have ever seen before. Even while recognizing the hand of God behind their suffering, mankind will shake its fist in His face, choosing to endure His divine punishment rather than admit to the truth of their own sin and their need for a Savior.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Nothing to Fear

1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV

As chapter five opens, Paul shifts his focus from the Rapture, the end-times event when the church is “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air, to the “day of the Lord.” Though closely related and timed to happen in sequence, these are two separate events, and Paul treats them as such. The Rapture of the church will usher in the Tribulation, a literal seven-year period of intense judgment from God upon the earth. With the church removed, He will turn His attention to the lost who will make up the entire population of the planet, including His original chosen people, the nation of Israel. Prophetically, the “day of the Lord” begins with the Tribulation, includes Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the seven years, and concludes with the Millennium, the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.

Having encouraged the Thessalonians regarding the fate of their deceased brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul begins to address the living rather than the dead. He wants them to have a well-developed understanding of the sequence of events that will make up the end times. He has already addressed the Rapture, and with that reality firmly fixed in their minds, the Thessalonians have nothing to fear regarding the day of the Lord. Yes, it “will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV), unexpectedly and surprisingly.

Jesus also warned His disciples about the sudden and unexpected nature of this end-times event.

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:34-36 ESV

Jesus was not suggesting that His disciples would live to see that day. Obviously, none of them did. He was also not teaching that believers would experience the day of the Lord. But notice that He does suggest that they pray for “strength to escape all these things” so that they might “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36 ESV). Jesus was encouraging His disciples and all true believers to live their lives with a sense of soberness and alertness, eagerly anticipating His return for them. He assures them that those who remain in Him will “escape all these things that are going to take place.”

But Paul describes a drastically different fate for all those who are alive when the day of the Lord begins: “sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV). Living with a false sense of peace and security, they will be caught completely by surprise at the sudden and unexpected nature of God’s judgment. And the prophets provide sobering details regarding the extent of the wrath God will pour out on sinful mankind in those days.

For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
    the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
    and all the sinners destroyed with it.
The heavens will be black above them;
    the stars will give no light.
The sun will be dark when it rises,
    and the moon will provide no light.

“I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil
    and the wicked for their sin.
I will crush the arrogance of the proud
    and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:0-11 NLT

“That terrible day of the Lord is near.
    Swiftly it comes—
a day of bitter tears,
    a day when even strong men will cry out.
It will be a day when the Lord’s anger is poured out—
    a day of terrible distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and desolation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and blackness,
    a day of trumpet calls and battle cries. – Zephaniah 1:14-16 NLT

Even Jesus described the devastating nature of God’s judgment.

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

But Paul is informing the Thessalonians that they have no reason to fear those dark days. Not because they will die long before the events take place but because, as followers of Christ, they will be protected and preserved from judgment.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ – 1 Thessalonians 5:9 ESV

The period of the Tribulation is intended as a divine judgment against sinful mankind. With the church removed at the Rapture, the remaining population of the earth will be made up solely of unbelievers. And as Jesus indicated, the divine judgment that God will bring upon them will be like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The book of Revelation outlines the nature of these catastrophic judgments.

…hail and fire mixed with blood were thrown down on the earth. One-third of the earth was set on fire, one-third of the trees were burned, and all the green grass was burned. – Revelation 8:7 NLT

…a great mountain of fire was thrown into the sea. One-third of the water in the sea became blood, one-third of all things living in the sea died, and one-third of all the ships on the sea were destroyed. – Revelation 8:8-9 NLT

a great star fell from the sky, burning like a torch. It fell on one-third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star was Bitterness. It made one-third of the water bitter, and many people died from drinking the bitter water. – Revelation 8:10-11 NLT

…and one-third of the sun was struck, and one-third of the moon, and one-third of the stars, and they became dark. And one-third of the day was dark, and also one-third of the night. – Revelation 8:12-13 NLT

In the chronicle of his divinely inspired vision, John goes on to describe days marked by darkness, disease, intense suffering, unprecedented meteorological events, devastating natural disasters, and demonic activity. John leaves no doubt as to the intensity of these judgments and their impact on the inhabitants of the world.

In those days people will seek death but will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them! – Revelation 9:6 NLT

They will be days of darkness, literally and figuratively. But Paul reminds his readers:

But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. – 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5 ESV

The judgments of the Tribulation are not for Christ-followers. They are reserved for all those who have rejected God’s offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. And yet, God in His mercy will make His offer of salvation available to those living during the Tribulation. John describes 144,000 Jews who will come to faith in Christ and become witnesses during the days of the Tribulation (Revelation 7:1-8). And, as a result of their evangelistic efforts, many will turn to Christ, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering. John describes seeing “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10 ESV). And when he inquires who these people are, he is told, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).

Even while pouring out His wrath on rebellious mankind, God will extend mercy to those who accept His gracious offer of salvation.

But for believers this side of the Rapture, there is no need to fear the coming wrath of God. But at the same time, Paul warns that we are not to live with a sense of misplaced confidence. He warns the Thessalonians, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6 ESV). They were to live with a sense of keen awareness and sober-minded seriousness regarding their new life in Christ. Paul reminds them, “you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 ESV).

This is the same message Paul gave to the church in Colossae.

For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 NLT

And the Ephesian believers were not left out.

Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said,

“Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” – Ephesians 5:10-14 NLT

As children of light and those who have been transferred into the Kingdom of Christ and, as a result, “we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 ESV). We have the resources necessary for living godly lives. And we have the assurance of our future glorification. We have no reason to fear death or to worry about ever having to face God’s judgment.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:10-11 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Caught Up – Part 2

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV

Paul, writing from Corinth, was attempting to correct a misunderstanding among the believers who made up the church in Thessalonica. They were confused over the fact that Christ had not yet returned and in the meantime, some within their congregation had died. This had raised serious questions about the timing of Christ’s return and the fate of those who had expressed faith in Him but had died.

In an effort to fill in the holes in their theology and to provide encouragement over the recent departures of their loved ones, Paul expanded their understanding of the events surrounding the end times. This passage has become the primary defense for what has come to be known as the Rapture of the church. I discussed the genesis of the term “rapture” in the previous blog. Here, I will attempt to look at the further evidence found in Scripture that supports the doctrine of the Rapture of the church.

There are those within Christianity who reject the idea of the Rapture, and who believe that in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul is speaking about the Second Coming of Christ. And among those who believe in the Rapture of the church, there is great debate as to when it will take place.

The time of the Rapture has been a matter of disagreement among conservative interpreters. Some believe it will take place before the Tribulation (pretribulationists). Others believe that it will take place after the Tribulation (posttribulationists). Others conclude that it will take place during the Tribulation (midtribulationists). Still others hold that the Lord will catch away only some Christians, not all (partial rapturists). – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on 1 Thessalonians

Among these various groups, the primary point of debate is the timing of the Rapture as it relates to the Tribulation. Will it take place before, during, or after? Most pretribulationists believe that this passage, among others, supports their view, and I would agree. As we saw in yesterday’s post, verse 17 provides important evidence for the doctrine of the Rapture. Paul states that, upon the Lord’s return, “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” And then Paul adds, “and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17 ESV). While there are those who interpret this verse as referring to the Second Coming of Christ, there are problems with that view. Why does Paul refer to believers being caught up and meeting the Lord in the air? At His second advent, Jesus will come to earth.

The prophet Zechariah, in addressing the end-times event known as “the Day of the Lord,” describes Jesus returning to earth at His Second Coming.

Then the LORD will go out to fight against those nations, as he has fought in times past. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. And the Mount of Olives will split apart, making a wide valley running from east to west. Half the mountain will move toward the north and half toward the south. – Zechariah 14:3-4 NLT

In the previous chapter of his letter, Paul referred to Christ’s Second Coming, and differentiated it from the Rapture by describing it as “…the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). This view aligns with the vision given to the apostle John which he recorded in the book of Revelation. He describes Jesus coming back to earth and bringing the saints with Him.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. – Revelation 19:11-14 NLT

In the verse preceding this description of Christ’s second advent, John describes his vision of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, where the

“Praise the Lord!
    For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.
Let us be glad and rejoice,
    and let us give honor to him.
For the time has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb,
    and his bride has prepared herself.
She has been given the finest of pure white linen to wear.”
    For the fine linen represents the good deeds of God’s holy people. – Revelation 19:6-8 NLT

In this passage, John describes seeing the “bride” of Christ, the church, enjoying a sumptuous feast with Him in heaven. They are dressed in “the finest of pure white linen” (Revelation 19:8 NLT). And this event precedes His return to earth with “the armies of heaven, dressed in pure white linen” (Revelation 19:14 NLT). How did the church get to heaven before Christ’s return to earth a second time? The logical answer would be the Rapture. The day will come when Christ returns for His bride, the church. Those believers who are alive at that time will rise to meet with Lord in the air and return with Him to heaven. And this interpretation seems to support the promise Jesus made to His disciples prior to His ascension.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. 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 will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:1-3 ESV

Jesus returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But the redemptive story didn’t end there. As the disciples stood staring up into the sky, two angels appeared and gave them some very important words of encouragement.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:12 NLT

Jesus died. He was buried. He rose again. He appeared. He ascended. And, one day, He will return. This is the very event to which Paul refers in this section of 1 Thessalonians 4. He reminds His audience that there is another important event that looms on the horizon of redemptive history. The return of Christ for His bride, the church.

The Rapture, while often confused with the Second Coming, is a completely separate end times event. It refers to the return of Christ for His bride, the church, and it will take place at the end of what is called the church age – a period of undisclosed length that includes the time in which we live. It began with the coming of Jesus and will end with His return for the church when He takes all those who have believed in Him to join Him in His Father’s house in heaven.

All of this fits into the wedding imagery that Jesus used concerning He and the church. He is the groom and we are His bride. Technically, according to the traditional Jewish concept of marriage, we are the betrothed on Jesus. The marriage has yet to be consummated, but we are legally bound to Him, having been given to Him by His Father, just as in a traditional Jewish wedding (John 17:12). During the betrothal period, the bride and groom are legally married but remain separated from one another.  It is only just before the actual wedding itself that the groom returns for His bride and takes her to his father’s house, where the wedding ceremony and feast are held. Jesus, having returned to His Father’s house, is preparing a place for He and His bride. Then, when the time is right, he will return for her and take her to His Father’s house, where the ceremony and the celebration will take place.

That is the event to which Paul is referring and he appears to be bringing it up because there was confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They had been longing for and eagerly awaiting the Parousia or coming of Christ. The early church lived with a sense of immediacy and imminence when it came to Christ’s return. They expected it to happen any day. And Paul and the other apostles encouraged this outlook. Paul told the believers in Corinth:

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

And he added another important aspect to this end-times event.

It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. – 1 Corinthians 15:52 NLT

Notice what Paul says here. Those who have died will be raised to live forever. And those who are living when Jesus returns for the church will also be transformed. That is the very same message Paul is delivering to the Thessalonians. The dead have not missed the boat. Their souls have gone to be with Jesus in heaven. All believers who die prior to the Rapture go to be with Him. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul stressed that death brought immediate entrance into God’s presence.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV

And the day is coming when those departed saints will return with Christ and receive their newly resurrected, glorified bodies. Again, Paul addressed the reality of this incredible promise in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

…our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! – 1 Corinthians 15:50-51 NLT

As Dr. Thomas L. Constable so aptly puts it: “the translation of living Christians and the resurrection of dead Christians will take place at the same time.” It is at the Rapture that all those in Christ, the living and the dead, will receive their glorified bodies, custom-made for the eternal state. As Paul puts it, “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to maintain their hope, even in the face of loss. Their loved ones were not gone, they had simply gone on ahead. And the day is coming when all believers, those who have died and gone to be with the Lord, and those who are still living, will be reunited and will receive their resurrected, glorified bodies. And the apostle John provides us with further words of encouragement regarding that day.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

I Will Look to the Lord

1 Woe is me! For I have become
    as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
    as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
    no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
The godly has perished from the earth,
    and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and each hunts the other with a net.
Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well;
    the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
    thus they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier,
    the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
    now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a neighbor;
    have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
    from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
    the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me.
Micah 7:1-7 ESV

In this chapter, Micah gives his very personal perception of how things are going in Israel and Judah. He has been pouring out himself on behalf of his people, sharing the message given to him by God, but his efforts have been met with resistance and rejection. Micah had longed to see his people respond the God’s call for repentance. He knew God was serious when He warned of coming judgment. But Micah had believed that there was still time for the people to heed God’s call and return to Him with humble and contrite hearts.

Yet, here in chapter 7, we hear the downcast words of a disappointed prophet. He has come to the point where he realizes that the fate of the people of Israel is sealed. Their stubborn hearts will not allow them to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8). And, from Micah’s perspective, all his efforts have been in vain.

He pronounces a woe upon himself. He uses the Hebrew word, ‘alĕlay, which was an expression of lament or deep sorrow.  The circumstances in Judah and Israel had left him without hope and feeling as if there was nothing more for him to do. He compares the situation facing the people of God to that of a man attempting to find fruit after the harvest has been gathered.

Not a cluster of grapes or a single early fig
    can be found to satisfy my hunger. – Micah 7:1 NLT

The imagery utilized by Micah is intended to stress the poor nature of harvest that had been gathered. There had been so little fruit that the fruit pickers had stripped the trees and the vines bare. Nothing had been left for the poor and needy. Every single grape and fig was gone. Nothing was left.

And Micah makes sure the reader understands he is speaking metaphorically. He doesn’t want anyone misunderstanding his point.

The godly people have all disappeared;
    not one honest person is left on the earth. – Micah 7:2 NLT

The spiritual state of the people of God was unexpectedly catastrophic. It was worse than anyone could have ever imagined, including Micah. And what makes his assessment so devastatingly disappointing is that this was not what God had intended for His chosen people. The prophet Isaiah provides a stark contrast between God’s divine intentions for Israel and their actual response to His grace and mercy.

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
    but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
    but instead he heard cries of violence. – Isaiah 5:7 NLT

Israel was to have been God’s fruitful vineyard. And the psalmist describes how God had chosen Israel and placed them in the land of promise with the expectation that they would be fruitful and prosper.

You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine;
    you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.
You cleared the ground for us,
    and we took root and filled the land.
Our shade covered the mountains;
    our branches covered the mighty cedars.
We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea;
    our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River. – Psalm 80:8-11 NLT

God had blessed them. They had enjoyed tremendous prosperity under God’s gracious care. But the psalmist goes on to describe what happened next.

But now, why have you broken down our walls
    so that all who pass by may steal our fruit?
The wild boar from the forest devours it,
    and the wild animals feed on it. – Psalm 80:12-13 NLT

And Isaiah described just how disappointed God was with the harvest among His chosen people, His vineyard.

Now I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
    and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
    and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
    but the grapes that grew were bitter.  – Isaiah 5:1-2 NLT

And Micah gives evidence that the grapes were indeed bitter.

The godly has perished from the earth,
    and there is no one upright among mankind – Micah 7:2 ESV

The situation among the people of Israel is demoralizingly bad. Speaking hyperbolically, Micah states that the godly are nowhere to be found. The entire nation is made up of dishonest, unethical murderers and evildoers. The officials and judges demand bribes, and the rich use their power and influence to twist and extort justice to get what they want. But it’s not just the rich and powerful who model this kind of behavior. Everyone is guilty.

the best of them is like a brier;
    the most honest is as dangerous as a hedge of thorns. – Micah 7:4 NLT

They are all like briers and thorns, inflicting pain and sorrow wherever they go. Rather than practicing justice and showing kindness to one another, they dispense unnecessary injury – all for the sake of their own personal desires and agendas. But Micah warns them that their days are numbered. God was going to deal with His unfruitful vineyard.

But your judgment day is coming swiftly now.
    Your time of punishment is here, a time of confusion. – Micah 7:4 NLT

Isaiah had also recorded the words of God concerning this coming day of judgment.

Now let me tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it. – Isaiah 5:5-6 NLT

And Micah, who has gone out of his way to describe just how bad things were, makes sure the people of Israel understand it is only going to get worse.

Don’t trust anyone—
    not your best friend or even your wife!
For the son despises his father.
    The daughter defies her mother.
The daughter-in-law defies her mother-in-law.
    Your enemies are right in your own household! – Micah 7:5-6 NLT

The apostle Paul issued a similar statement to his young protege, Timothy, warning him that the last days were going to be marked by unprecedented spiritual apostasy and moral degradation.

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that! – 2 Timothy 3:1-5 NLT

But in spite of his dire prediction, Paul encouraged Timothy to “remain faithful to the things you have been taught” (2 Timothy 3:14 NLT). He pointed Timothy back to the promises of God found in the Word of God.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT

And in a similar fashion, Micah states his unwavering commitment to God, even in the midst of all that is going on around him. He had heard the word of God and proclaimed it faithfully. And while things were not working out as he had hoped or expected, he was going to continue to turn to God for help and hope.

As for me, I look to the Lord for help.
    I wait confidently for God to save me,
    and my God will certainly hear me. – Micah 7:7 NLT

Micah started out this chapter with an expression of lament. But here, in verses 7, he expresses his heartfelt trust in God. He was not going to let the circumstances of life diminish his reliance upon God. He may have been surrounded by godless people who had turned their back on God, but he was determined to remain confidently committed to trusting Yahweh.

And the apostle Paul provides us with similar words of encouragement, reminding us to remain faithful to God even in the face of trials, tribulations, and seasons of uncertainty.

Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people. Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy. – Philippians 2:14-18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

He Will…

14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
    he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall never again fear evil.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
    let not your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
    so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
19 Behold, at that time I will deal
    with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you in,
    at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
    among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
    before your eyes,” says the Lord. – Zephaniah 3:14-20 ESV

As Zephaniah prepares to wrap up his very short, but densely packed book of prophecy, he redirects his focus from the coming judgment of Judah and the world to the more upbeat topic of God’s plans for restoration and reconciliation. The world will not end in an apocalyptic firestorm of destruction and devastation. Yes, God is going to bring His divine judgment upon sinful mankind and He will destroy the heavens and the earth, but He will also make all things new (Revelation 21:5). The end of the age will really be a time of new beginnings.

God had promised His chosen people, Israel, that the day was coming when He would restore them to a right relationship with Himself. In spite of all their years of rebellion, unfaithfulness, and stubborn unrepentance, He would once again reestablish His covenant relationship with them.

Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign LORD: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign LORD, then the nations will know that I am the LORD. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 NLT

And not only that, God had promised to recreate the universe, which currently suffers under the curse of sin.

“Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore.” – Isaiah 65:17 NLT

The apostle Paul describes the creation as “groaning” under sin’s curse, eagerly awaiting the day when it will be renewed and released from the death and decay that has marred it ever since the fall.

…all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

But the good news is that God is going to bring about a renewal of the physical universe and within the hearts of men. Even rebellious Israel will find itself made new by God, which is why Zephaniah shouts:

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter of Jerusalem! – Zephaniah 3:14 ESV

Zephaniah predicts the return of the Messiah and the establishment of His earthly kingdom in Jerusalem. And His return will be accompanied by not only the restoration of Israel to favor with God but also by the removal of all further judgment.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
    he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall never again fear evil. – Zephaniah 3:15 ESV

In the book of Hebrews we have recorded the words of God describing this future day when He will make a new covenant with His chosen people.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah…
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.” – Romans 8:8, 10-12 ESV

This will be a day of great rejoicing because God will provide His once-rebellious people with the inner capacity to live in perfect obedience to His law. The law, once relegated to tablets of stone, will be written on their hearts. And the prophet, Jeremiah, recorded God’s promise regarding this coming day.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” – Jeremiah 31:33 ESV

Heart transformation. That is what God will bring to His people. Radical, Spirit-enabled heart change that will provide the people of God with the capacity to love and obey Him perfectly and joyfully.

And Zephaniah declares that on that day, God will replace mourning with joy. He will remove all reproach, eliminate all oppression, heal the sick, restore the rejected, eradicate shame, and return His people to a place of prominence and power. And He makes an unbreakable, unwavering promise to His people: “I restore your fortunes before your eyes” (Zephaniah 3:20 ESV). And all this will take place when His Son returns to the earth.

Jesus Christ will come again. And when He does, He will usher in the Millennial Kingdom, His one thousand years of righteous rule from the city of Jerusalem that will bring an end to the reign of Satan and establish culminate with the eternal state. As the prophet Isaiah predicted, Jesus will be King.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:7 ESV

Two times in the closing chapter of the book of Revelation, Jesus announces, “behold, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7, 12 ESV). Obviously, John wrote those words nearly two millennia ago, so Jesus did not mean His return was imminent. But He did mean it was inevitable. And so, we are to live with confidence, eagerly anticipating the reality of His return.

And while the people of Judah faced the coming judgment of God in the form of the Babylonian conquest, they could still rejoice in the knowledge that God will one day “take away their humiliation and make the whole earth admire and respect them” (Zephaniah 3:19 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

The Hope of Things to Come

“For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
    to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
    and serve him with one accord.
10 From beyond the rivers of Cush
    my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones,
    shall bring my offering.

11 “On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me;
for then I will remove from your midst
    your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty
    in my holy mountain.
12 But I will leave in your midst
    a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
13 those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
    and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
    a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
    and none shall make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:9-13 ESV

In 1719, the hymn, “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” was published by Isaac Watts as part of a collection entitled, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. The opening words of this classic anthem to God’s glory read:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

This heartfelt declaration of God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of His people provides a perfect segue to this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy. After warning the people of Judah of God’s pending judgment and declaring God’s future plans for the destruction of sinful mankind, Zephaniah reminds the citizens of Jerusalem that their God is not yet done.

While the judgment of Judah and the nations of the world was inevitable and inescapable, the people of God were to maintain hope in their merciful and always faithful God.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of God’s gracious, hope-inducing plans for His people.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”– Jeremiah 29:11-14 ESV

While God was going to discipline His people for their rebellious behavior and their repeated refusal to repent of their sins, He would not completely forsake or forget them. The day was coming when a remnant of His people would return to Him with repentant hearts, fully forgiven for their past indiscretions.

On that day you shall not be put to shame
    because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me – Zephaniah 3:11 ESV

But the repentant Jews will not be alone. Zephaniah reveals that another remnant, made up of people from among the nations of the earth will also turn to God, accepting the gracious offer of salvation and forgiveness through His Son. The apostle John recorded his vision of this great throng of redeemed people, standing before the throne of God Almighty.

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 NLT

While Zephaniah’s warnings of judgment and God’s promises to completely eradicate mankind may leave us wrestling with feelings of uncertainty and confusion, we must not overlook God’s promises of redemption for a remnant of sin-plagued and rebellion-prone humanity.

There were dark days ahead for the people of God and the majority of mankind will one day stand before God, justly condemned and fully deserving of their punishment. But the future will not be all doom and gloom. Notice the silver lining that accompanies the dark cloud of Zephaniah’s prophecy:

“Then I will purify the speech of all people,
    so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
My scattered people who live beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
    will come to present their offerings.” – Zephaniah 3:9-10 NLT

The future is actually quite bright. The sovereign God of the universe has a plan that will involve the return of His Son, the defeat of Satan, the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, and the judgment of the unbelieving world. But there will a remnant on earth, made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue, who will joyfully and gratefully worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

God describes a scene of unprecedented peace and tranquility. The days marked by godlessness and faithlessness will be no more.

“Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
    for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
The remnant of Israel will do no wrong;
    they will never tell lies or deceive one another.
They will eat and sleep in safety,
    and no one will make them afraid.” – Zephaniah 3:12-13 NLT

Jesus provided a description of how this elimination of the godless and faithless will take place.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46 ESV

Obviously, this section of Zephaniah’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But it will be. That is why it was intended to bring hope to the people of Judah, even though they would not live to see it come to pass. God was attempting to give them the big picture view of His redemptive plan. And that plan is not relegated to one generation or nation. It spans the centuries, moving from the creation of Adam and Eve in the garden all the way to the Second Coming and the recreation of the earth.

Long ago, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” – Isaiah 65:17 ESV

And God promised the people of Israel that this new heaven and new earth would be permanent in nature, reflecting His permanent commitment to them as His chosen people.

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain.” – Isaiah 66:22 ESV

And as John reveals in the book of Revelation, the end of the age will be accompanied by this newly created heaven and earth.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. – Revelation 21:1 ESV

God is going to make all things new. He will restore His creation to its former glory and remove all vestiges of sin. Death will be no more. Wickedness will have no place in God’s creation. The righteous will live in unbroken fellowship with the Holy Trinity and the influence of Satan will be permanently eradicated from the face of the earth.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:5-8 ESV

In the meantime, the people of God are to have hope. Despite what may be happening to them or around them, they are never to lose sight of God’s divine plan of redemption. He is not done. There is reason to hope. Because He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to fulfill His promises. And while the future remains out of sight and out of our control. we can have faith in the faithfulness of God. This is why the author of Hebrews reminds us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV).

And may the words of Isaac Watts ring in our ears as we wait for God to fulfill His perfect plan.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
are like an ev’ning gone,
short as the watch that ends the night
before the rising sun.

Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

A Faithful Servant

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” – Matthew 25:14-30 ESV

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Jesus has been stressing the need for His disciples to have a long-term perspective regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather than expecting it to show up in their lifetimes and according to their preconceived and self-centered perspectives, they were going to have to come to understand it as future-oriented. Jesus was not going to set up His kingdom on earth at that time. He was not going to rule and reign from Jerusalem as the Messiah while they were still alive. His kingdom was to come. So, in the meantime, the disciples were to live in a state of readiness. In fact, in His previous parable, Jesus emphasized the need for preparedness.

Jesus continued to address the future aspect of the coming Kingdom by telling yet another parable. Again, He would stress the unexpected delay associated with His  Kingdom. Yes, He was the Messiah and the rightful heir to David’s throne. But His ascension to that throne, while inevitable, was not going to be immediate.

So, Jesus began His parable by describing a man preparing to go on a journey. This man was obviously well-to-do, having land, material wealth, and servants. In preparation for his departure, the man called his servants together and “entrusted to them his property” (Matthew 25:14 ESV). The Greek word Jesus used was paradidōmi and it means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage” (Online Bible).

The man took what was his and gave it to his servants so they might manage it in his absence. In other words, he placed them in charge of all that he owned – “his property.” All three men were given responsibility for their master’s possessions, which would have included his land, house, livestock, and any other personal property.

It seems that, when we read this parable, we place all the emphasis on the talents given to the three men. It is as if the talents are the point of the story. They represent the “property” handed over by the master. But on closer inspection, it would appear that the talents represent the master’s payment to each of the three servants for their care of his property in his absence.

The text reads: “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matthew 25:15 ESV). It’s interesting to note that the word translated “ability” is the Greek word dynamis. It is the same word from which we get our English word, dynamite. It refers to power or physical strength. This man knew his servants well and compensated them according to what he believed would be their level of work. He was not giving them gifts to use or invest. In fact, there is no indication from the text that the master told any of the servants to invest what he had given them. The talents were intended as payment for the service they were expected to render on his behalf and in his absence.

But what makes the story so interesting is that two of the servants took their “salary” and invested it. They recognized that the money given to them was not really theirs, but it belonged to their master. It was part of his property and they viewed their possession of it as temporary in nature. It was a loan. So, they traded or invested what they had. We’re not told the nature of their investment strategy, because that doesn’t seem to be the point of the parable. The emphasis in the parable is that each of them doubled the value of what they had been given. And when their master returned, he recognized them as having been good and faithful servants.

There is an interesting choice of words in this parable. In the first place, when the two faithful servants address their master upon his return, they both said, “Master, you delivered to me _______ talents.” They use the same word, paradidōmi, which means “to deliver to one something to keep, use, take care of, manage.” The two men acknowledged that their master had given them the talents and that he expected them to use their resources wisely. But Jesus described the first man as “he who had received the five talents” (Matthew 25:20 ESV). The Greek word translated as “received” is lambanō and it can mean “to take what is one’s own, or to receive what is rightfully yours.”

Jesus seems to describe the men as receiving their talents as payment from their master. But two of the men never lost sight of the fact that the talents were really just another extension of their master’s property. What he had given them really belonged to him and they treated it that way. They showed him respect and deference by wisely investing what they had been given and returning to him any profit they had received. Their gain would have been impossible without the master’s trust and generosity. 

But there is a third servant. His actions are meant to stand out like a sore thumb. Unlike his two fellow servants, this man took what he had been given and buried it in a hole. It’s important to notice that this man’s address to his master is radically different than the other two. He stated: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25 ESV).

Surprisingly, he addressed the one who had given him his talent as a demanding and a difficult task-master. He had a different outlook on the master and was motivated by fear. And remember, the one talent this man had received had been based on his ability or power to deliver. It’s fairly clear from the story that he had been properly compensated. He got what he deserved. And while this servant rightfully acknowledged that what he had been given by the master belonged to the master, he displayed a complete lack of initiative and no sense of stewardship. He did nothing with what he had been given.

So, what’s the point? What is Jesus trying to tell His disciples and, by extension, us? Once again, the emphasis is on the Kingdom of Heaven, and the period of time about which Jesus seems to be speaking is the Great Tribulation. In the parable, Jesus mentions that the master returned “after a long time.” There was a long delay. The return of the master is meant to represent the return of Jesus at His second coming. That momentous event will take place at the end of the seven years of tribulation.

During the period of the tribulation, the presence and power of God will be seen and felt as He brings repeated judgments upon the world. He will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become witnesses to the nations. He will graciously offer opportunities for men and women to repent even during the darkest days of the tribulation, and many will. In fact, there will be countless other Jews who come to faith in Jesus during those dark days. They will receive salvation through faith alone in Jesus alone. He will offer them what is rightfully His, His own righteousness, and He will expect them to use it wisely as they wait for His return. What they do with their newfound faith will be essential.

The point of the parable is found in the words of Jesus found in verse 29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

And in the very next verses, we will see how Jesus applies this statement. Whether it is believers in the church age waiting for the return of Christ and the rapture, or tribulation saints waiting for His second coming, they are to live faithfully as they wait. They are to steward well what they have been given by God. Those who are in Christ have graciously received from the abundance of His wealth and riches. We are to use what we have been given wisely and well. We are to recognize that all we have belongs to Him and to treat it with care. The two faithful servants did not make the talents their focus. They didn’t place all their emphasis on what they had been given, but on what they could do to honor their master. And we should long to hear the very same words Jesus spoke to them:

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” – Matthew 25:23 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Left in the Dark

” 1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-12 ESV

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Jesus has been trying to get His disciples to have a long-term perspective when considering the Kingdom of Heaven. While He was the Messiah, the one whom the people of Israel had long expected, He was not going to be establishing His Kingdom at that moment. Jesus has already told them that He was going to have to go to Jerusalem, be betrayed, falsely accused, tried, beaten, and eventually crucified. But He would also rise again.

As part of this, His first coming to earth, His primary mission was to serve as the sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. But there was a day coming when He would return to earth a second time. But there was much that would have to take place before that return. And the date of His second appearance was a mystery. He told the disciples, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36 ESV).

And He had warned them, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44 ESV). The point Jesus seemed to be making had to do with preparedness. He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager expectation, anticipating that His return could happen at any moment. And this led Jesus to tell a few parables to drive home His point.

The first had to do with a wedding. It involved ten virgins who were anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom. The question that must be asked is, “Who are these ten virgins and what do they represent?” Based on the immediate context, it seems clear that Jesus has been addressing His second coming, which will take place at the end of the seven-year period called the Great Tribulation.

Since the church is to be raptured before the tribulation begins, these ten virgins cannot represent the church. It makes much more sense to see them as Jews who will be alive during the period of the tribulation. And, as the text will reveal, the ten virgins break down into two groups. Five of them are prepared, while five are not. This would seem to indicate that the first five represent Jews who will come to faith during the days of the tribulation, which the book of Revelation tells us will take place.

John was given a vision in which “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” He describes them as “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9 ESV). Then John was told their identity. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14 ESV).

There will be many who come to faith during the period of the tribulation, including Jews as well as people from every tribe, nation, and tongue. But the second group of five virgins represents all those Jews who will remain unrepentant and unbelieving during the tribulation, all the way up to the point of Jesus’ return.

In the story, all ten virgins share a common expectation of the bridegroom’s arrival. They are eagerly anticipating his coming. This is why the ten virgins appear to indicate Jews because they alone would have anticipated the arrival of the Messiah. During the days of the tribulation, Jews living at that time will long for the arrival of the Messiah. For believing Jews, they will understand it to be His second coming. For unbelieving Jews, they will view it as His first. But all will share a common desire for His arrival.

But again, the issue is one of preparedness. There is a delay. In the story, the bridegroom has not shown up as expected. But, as part of the welcoming party, they were to have been ready, because, as Jesus had said, the groom was “coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Sadly, the story reveals that half the group was foolish, failing to take oil for their lamps. They were unprepared. They thought they would have plenty of time. But when news of the groom’s arrival was made known, they had lamps, but no oil. They begged the first group to share their oil with them, but were refused and told, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves” (Matthew 25:9 ESV).

They were on their own. It’s likely that the reference to oil in the story was meant to be a symbol for the Holy Spirit. The believing Jews had the Spirit of God within them. The unbelieving Jews did not.

And when the groom arrived, the wedding feast began. But by the time the second group of foolish, unprepared virgins showed up, it was too late. The door was shut. They were left on the outside. And the wedding feast would seem to represent that Marriage Supper of the Lamb, revealed in chapter 19 of Revelation.

Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—

for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. – Revelation 19:7-8 ESV

One of the things that will happen at the end of the tribulation will be that Christ, the bridegroom, will hold a feast for His bride, the church. And John was told, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9 ESV). Those who come to faith during the tribulation will be participants in this great celebration. But those who fail to accept Jesus will be left on the outside, looking in. And as Jesus indicated, their destination will be “that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51 ESV).

One of the saddest statements in the Scriptures is found in this parable. It is the words of the bridegroom, spoken to those virgins who showed up late and without oil for their lamps. He told them, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Matthew 25:12 ESV). They had been invited. They even had lamps. But they were without oil. They did not have what was necessary to respond when news of the groom’s arrival was announced. They were left in the dark.

The apostle Paul would later tell the Ephesian believers: “In him [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14 ESV). Those who lack the Holy Spirit will find themselves outside the feast. And, as Paul makes clear, the receipt of the Spirit is based on belief in the Son.

Again, the point of the parable is preparedness. How are the Jews living during the tribulation to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? By placing their faith in Him as their Savior. He alone will be able to save them from the persecution of the Antichrist and the judgments of God. He alone will preserve and protect them. Carrying a lamp with no oil is similar to placing your faith in your church attendance or good behavior. It is not enough. Your good works cannot save you. Your membership in a local church does not guarantee you a place in the Kingdom of God. Without the oil of God’s Spirit, you will find yourself on the outside looking in, and hearing those sad and sobering words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”

It’s impossible to read this parable and not reflect on the words of Jesus spoken years earlier in His sermon on the mount.

“On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you.’” – Matthew 7:22-23 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

(MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Greatest Commandment

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –  Matthew 22:34-40 ESV

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In this section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is being bombarded by a relentless series of questions posed to Him by various factions of the religious elite. First, they questioned His authority, wanting to know what right He had to say and do the things He did. Then the Pharisees tried to trick Him with a question regarding the payment of taxes to the Roman government. When they failed, the Sadducees, the liberals of their day, asked Him a question regarding marriage and the resurrection. The fact was, they didn’t believe in the resurrection, and they wanted to show that Jesus was in opposition to their belief system. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and wanted to expose Him as such. But Jesus saw through their motives and easily handled their question.

Like a tag-team wrestling match, the Sadducees were quickly followed by the Pharisees, who once again posed a controversial question to Jesus. This time it concerned the Mosaic Law – their area of expertise.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?”Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

This was a common topic of debate among rabbis. They were constantly arguing whether one commandment took precedence over another. And this was a significant issue to them because the Pharisees had codified the law into 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, many of which were man-made addendums to the law given by God to Moses. And the people of Israel were expected to keep this staggering list of 615 rules and precepts.

With that many laws, it wasn’t long before one seemed to contradict another. For instance, over in the book of Leviticus, the Law records, “Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:16 NLT). Yet, over in Exodus, it declares, “…but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on that day must be put to death. You must not even light a fire in any of your homes on the Sabbath” (Exodus 35:2-3 NLT). So, if your neighbor’s life was threatened on the Sabbath, what were you to do? Take action or rest?

This argument came up regularly between Jesus and the Pharisees because He seemed to make a habit of healing on the Sabbath, which they saw as a clear violation of the Law. In essence, by asking Jesus this question, they are testing Him to see if He had any greater insight into the Law than they did. And they had serious doubts about that.

The answer Jesus gave revealed His authority over the Scriptures.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

Jesus quoted from the Shema, a portion of Old Testament Scripture recited daily by all Jews.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. – Deuteronomy 6:5-6 NIV

This is just the first part. The love of God was to dictate all their behavior. But Jesus points out that there was a second part to the command.

“A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:39 NLT

Here, Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18 and reminds them that this second part was equally essential. While loving God was vital, so was loving your fellow man. And while this would not have been a revelation to the Pharisees, Jesus instilled these commands with new emphasis and meaning. While love for God was to be supreme, one of the greatest expressions of love for God shows up in our love for others. The apostle John reminds us:

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

Why would this have been so revolutionary and revelatory to the religious leaders? THEY DIDN’T DO IT! They claimed to love God but actually hated their brothers and sisters. As a matter of fact, Jesus was going to have some stinging things to say to them.

“For they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:4 NLT

In His answer, Jesus was giving them a new way to see the Law of God. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 23:40 NLT). Every other law was based on a love for God and a love for man. These two things were foundational to every other command given by God. The Ten Commandments themselves were divided into these two areas: A love for God and a love for others. There was to be a horizontal and vertical aspect to our love. You can’t have one without the other. They are meant to be reciprocal – and this Law of Love is found throughout the New Testament.

Owe nothing to anyone — except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These — and other such commandments — are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. – Romans 13:8-10 NLT

But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Galatians 5:13-14 NLT

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:8-9 NLT

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”John 13:34-35 NLT

Jesus puts love for God and love for man on an equal footing. They are inseparable, and yet the Pharisees claimed to love God but hated their fellow man. They despised all those whom they considered to be sinners or law-breakers.

Fast-forward to Matthew 25:37-40. In this passage, Jesus talks about the future judgment of man. He uses the picture of a shepherd dividing his flock between the sheep and the goats. This is an image of what will take place at the end of the great period of tribulation that will mark the end of the age. With His story, Jesus alludes to those Gentiles who will have survived the tribulation, some having come to faith during that time. And their love for God will be evidenced by their actions and their treatment of the Jews who will also be going through intense persecution during the final half of the tribulation. These “sheep” will stand before God and receive recognition for their efforts. And they will ask God a question:

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:37-40 NLT

Their love for others will be proof of their love for God. Their capacity to love others will provide evidence that their hearts have been transformed by God. In fact, it will be the main criterion for judgment. Yet Jesus states that all those who fail to do the same will be condemned.

OUR LOVE OF OTHERS IS OF GREAT IMPORTANCE TO GOD. It gives visible, tangible evidence of our love for Him. It reveals that we understand and appreciate His love for us.

So, how are you doing with these two commandments today? Do you claim to love God but struggle with loving others? Since you can’t put your arms around God and show Him how much you love Him, why not express your love for Him by loving those He has made?

Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:35 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Valley of Decision

Proclaim this among the nations:
Consecrate for war;
    stir up the mighty men.
Let all the men of war draw near;
    let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
    and your pruning hooks into spears;
    let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

11 Hasten and come,
    all you surrounding nations,
    and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations stir themselves up
    and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
    all the surrounding nations.

13 Put in the sickle,
    for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
    for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
    for their evil is great.

14 Multitudes, multitudes,
    in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
    in the valley of decision.
15 The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.

16 The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. Joel 3:9-16 ESV

This entire section contains a call to the nations of the earth to prepare for war. The day of the Lord is coming and it will include an epic battle of unparalleled size and scope – like nothing the world has ever seen before. It will involve all the nations of the world, but rather than fighting against one another, they will join forces against God and His people.

The scene Joel depicts is set far into the future, but it grows closer with each passing day. This is not a description of some battle from history-past, but a prophecy concerning the coming day of the Lord and, more specifically, the conflict that will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. Since there is no valley by that name in the region around Judah, this appellation is likely a reference to the battle God fought on behalf of King Jehoshaphat and the nation of Judah. In that conflict, God miraculously defeated the enemies of Judah, without them having to shoot a single arrow or throw a solitary spear. The victory was completely His doing. He judged the nations who had risen up against Judah and blessed His people in doing so.

In these verses, the Valley of Jehoshaphat becomes the valley of decision. This will be a place where God will pass judgment on the unregenerate nations of the earth by sending His Son to defeat them in battle. And God states that He “will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” (Joel 3:12 ESV). God the Father will watch as His Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords returns to earth in order to complete the redemptive plan of God.

But what Joel is depicting is the moments leading up to this decisive battle. In fact, he calls out to God, “Bring down your warriors, O Lord” (Joel 3:11 ESV). And he issues a call to the nations, challenging them to “stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:12 ESV). It is there that God will mete out His judgment on the nations. He will harvest the grapes and tread them in the winepress of His wrath. This is an image of God gathering up the overripe grapes (sinful men) and crushing them (judging them). We see this same imagery used in the book of Revelation, when John is given a vision of God’s pending judgment of the world.

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. – Revelation 14:14-16 ESV

And later on in the same book, John records yet another vision, revealing the second coming of Christ to judge the nations.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. – Revelation 19:15 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah gives us a description of Jesus after the battle in the valley of decision is complete.

Why is your apparel red,
    and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone,
    and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood spattered on my garments,
    and stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
    and my year of redemption had come.” – Isaiah 63:2-4 ESV

This future battle is also known as the Battle of Armageddon, which will take place at the end of the seven years of the Tribulation. Jesus Christ will return to earth and do battle with the nations of the earth which will have joined forces against Him, under the leadership of Antichrist. Once again, the apostle John was given a vision of this battle, and he recorded it in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

Joel describes the winepresses as full and the vats as overflowing, because the sin of the people is great. In Revelation, John puts it this way: “the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Revelation 14:15 ESV) and “its grapes are ripe” (Revelation 14:18 ESV). John uses two different words that are both translated as “ripe” in English, but they carry different meanings in Greek. The first is xērainō, and it means “dried up” or “withered.” It describes grain that has been left in the field too long. It is of no value. The second word, used in reference to grapes, is akmazō and it means, “fully ripe.” It actually describes grapes that are overripe or about to burst. Both words are used to illustrate the unredeemable nature of mankind because they are literally bursting with sin.

Joel describes some amazing meteorological events accompanying this battle. He states that the sun and moon will become darkened and the stars will cease to shine. Himself Jesus echoed these words when He told His disciples:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. – Matthew 24:29 ESV

The Tribulation will be marked by incredible atmospheric disturbances and never-before-seen cosmic signs as God brings His final judgments upon the earth. The book of Revelation describes seas turning to blood, mountains, and islands disappearing, 100-pound hailstones falling from the sky, and long periods of darkness. And while many find these signs and wonders difficult to believe and write them off as nothing more than literary metaphors and spiritual symbolism, there is no reason for us to reject their authenticity. For God, nothing is impossible. And since we are talking about the final days of the earth, it would only make sense that God is going to reveal His power in unprecedented ways during those days.

Yes, the picture Joel paints is unbelievable.

The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake. – Joel 3:16 ESV

But faith requires belief in the improbable and impossible. And Joel calls on the people of Judah to trust in the Lord. He challenges them to believe in the One who can do the unbelievable and perform the impossible.

But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. – Joel 3:16 ESV

God was on their side. And while their immediate future did not look particularly good, they could trust that God had a plan in place that would include His eventual redemption and restoration of them. As the prophet had told the people of Judah hundreds of years earlier when they were facing a similarly bleak future, the people living in Joel’s day could rest in the faithfulness of the Lord.

You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV

God has a way of seeing His people through the valleys. He shows up in our darkest moments and rescues us when we are helpless and hopeless. And our enemies stand no chance against the God of the universe. They can turn their plowshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears. They can declare, “I am a warrior.” But they will prove to be nothing more than withered grain and overripe grapes in the hand of the Lord.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson