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Approaching the Next
by Paul R. Raabe
Its 1999one year from the start
of the new millennium, and counting. And people have lots of questions.
Does the next millennium harbor promise or peril? Will the global economy widen the gap between rich and poor or raise everyone's standard of living? Will we witness the resolution of international disputes or the escalation of international terrorism? Will scientific research discover wonderful cures for serious diseases or invent arrogant ways to manufacture and customize babies? Will our children grow up in a more wholesome culture or will society's moral confusion only increase? What changes are in store for our families, schools, places of work and local communities? What challenges will the church face?
So, how should individual Christians and the church approach the next millennium? Are you ready to march into the next millennium or will you have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming? Are you ready to enter it with confidence in the Lord or do you find yourself cowering in fear?
To get ready for such a confident march, Christians first must identify their place and time on the map. We need to know where we were, where we are, and where we are going.
To help gain this perspective, consider the beloved hymn, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." (I confess that I prefer the version in The Lutheran Hymnal, #54.)
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou are mighty;
Hold me with They pow'rful hand.
Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell's destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan's side.
Songs of praise
I will ever give to Thee.
These words give us as church and as
individual Christians a perspective for understanding our present existence. We
must not become too comfortable in this present age or in this fallen world,
for we are on a journey, a journey that resembles the pilgrimage of the ancient
Israelites through the wilderness.
Journey through the wilderness
You remember the story. The Israelites found themselves in Egypt, helpless and hopeless under the oppressive rule of a king who knew not Joseph. They were not free to serve and worship Yahweh, at least not openly and publicly. For all intents and purposes, Pharaoh was their lord and master. They were free only to serve Pharaoh and to do his bidding.
Yet, the day eventually arrived when God in His great compassion heard their groaning cry, came down, and delivered His people with an outstretched arm. He entered into their prison and opened the gates. He defeated Pharaoh with great wonders and freed His people from slavery.
The Israelites did not and could not free themselves; it was all Yahweh's doing.
Then God brought them to Himself. At Sinai He ratified His covenant with them and made them His very own prized possession. From Sinai they set out to journey through the wilderness. More often than not they wanted to crawl back to Egypt, but they were supposed to march with confidence in Yahweh as their God.
Their deliverance from bondage happened in the past, and their inheritance of the Promised Land still awaited them in the future. In the mean time, they had to undergo a long and arduous trip through the rugged terrain and deadly perils of the wilderness.
But they did not have to take the trip alone. Yahweh, the God of Israel, went before them to lead them. When they set up camp, God tabernacled in their midst. And He sustained them on their way with manna and water. As ancient Israel traveled between the timesbetween Egypt and the Promised Land God was for them, with them and ahead of them.
We, too, are pilgrims on a journey "through this barren land." We have been given a far greater deliverance from a more profound bondage and have been made God's very own people. Yet, we still must make every effort to enter the future "rest" of the new and greater Promised Land (Heb. 4:9-11).
The unfaithfulness of the Israelites in the wilderness serves as a warning for us to take heed lest we also fall (1 Cor. 10:1-12). And just as the Lord did for ancient Israel, so now He sustains His new Israel on the way, only with far better giftsthe comfort and strength of the Gospel, the renewing waters of Baptism, the office of the keys, and His very own body and blood in the Lord's Supper.
Between the times
We as church and as individual Christians live between the times, between Christ's first advent and His second advent. This time between the times is characterized by the tension between the "now" and the "not yet."
On the one hand, now is the age of the fulfillment, the messianic new age promised by the Old Testament. Christ's first advent has inaugurated the last days. Good Friday and Easter, the key events of all history, have already taken place. We already now through the means of grace enjoy the benefits of Christ's all-sufficient work of salvation.
On the other hand, we have not yet arrived at the consummation. D-Day has happened but we still await VE-Day. Although we have been delivered from the present evil age and are no longer of the world, we still must live in it. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. We live by faith but not yet by sight.
In countless ways, the New Testament writers testify to this tension or paradox. Here are some examples:
Because Good Friday and Easter now
shine their bright beams upon us, we praise our Savior and extol His
Gospel-gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. Yet, because we remain sinners
in a world of death and darkness, our not-yet existence evokes from us
the agonizing cry, "How long, O Lord?" With holy unease we long for that bright
and glorious day when the "not-yet" will cease and only the "now"
will characterize all of life. As the hymn "Thy Strong Word" puts it, "Glorious
now, we press toward glory" (Lutheran Worship #328).
Our future hope
The New Testament uses a variety of images to speak of our future. We will sit at the banquet table along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We will inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. The new Jerusalem will come down from above.
And there are other images. But at the center of it all is the One who is our future hope, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will visibly return in glory. The Athanasian Creed from the early church summarizes what the Scriptures teach regarding Christ's second advent:
He ascended into heaven, he sits at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
The Scriptures clearly teach that when
Christ returns the general resurrection and the judgment of all people will
take place (see John
25:31-46). What the Scriptures do not teach, although it is espoused
by some people, is "millennialism."
There are several different types of millennialismthe most popular today being "dispensational premillennialism"but in general millennialists promote the notion that Christ will rule from the earthly city of Jerusalem for 1,000 years, during which time the earth will experience a golden age. In other words, before the last day of human history, there will be a golden age of perfect peace on earth.
Millennialists base their notion on a misinterpretation of Revelation 20. This chapter speaks of a "first resurrection," a "1,000 years," and by implication a second resurrection, but it does not refer to what millennialists have in mind. Rather, it uses figurative language to refer to what John 5:24-29 (and other passages) expresses in literal language.
The "first resurrection" is spiritual resurrection, the gift of eternal life that we already have received by faith, whereas the second resurrection is the bodily resurrection on the last day. The number "1,000 years" is no more literal than the number "144,000" mentioned in Rev. 7:4. It is a symbolical expression for completeness (10x10x10) that refers to the complete time of the church's mission throughout the world. It is the time between Christ's two advents in which He rules through the Gospel.
The whole book of Revelation is a wonderful and most comforting book, but the reader needs to recognize its rich use of symbolism in order to understand it properly.
Meanwhile . . . the next millennium
As we approach the year A.D. 2000, what can we expect? Actually, the year A.D. 2000 already happened about 1995, since Christ was born about 5 B.C. Nevertheless, the arrival of 2000 will no doubt give rise to all sorts of wild speculations and apocalyptic scenarios.
Of one thing, however, we can be certain: 2000 and beyond will not bring about any sort of "millennial" golden age on earth. God never made any such promise. The next millennium might be a little better than the past or it might be worse, but theologically speaking (if Christ has not yet returned) it will be no different from the previous 1,000 years.
Until the last day of human history, when Christ comes in glory, the year 2000 and beyond will remain part of this "not-yet" time of our journey through the wilderness. The tension of living between the times will continue to characterize our life also in the next millennium.
We need not adopt a completely negative and pessimistic view of the year 2000 and beyond. We still confess the first article of the creed. The Creator will remain at work creating life and preserving the fallen world. His rain will still fall on the just and the unjust. Through the talents and abilities He gives to all people, including non-Christians, He will continue to sustain and enhance life.
Still, we should not indulge in any kind of blind optimism that expects to see utopia in the coming years. After all, the word "utopia" derives from two Greek words that mean "no place." Although as responsible citizens we continue to work for a more justly ordered and morally upright society, no amount of social or political effort can ever establish the future kingdom of God. The coming years will remain part of the present not-yet age. The efforts of sinners will still be marked by sin. Those who belong to Christ can expect continuing and even intensified opposition from the fallen world.
So, how do we approach the next millennium? We march into the next millennium as those redeemed by the precious blood of our Passover Lamb. We march as the people of God, united shoulder-to-shoulder by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We march with the whole armor of God into battle against our own old Adam and against the powers and principalities of darkness.
We march into all nations with missionary fervor for the Gospel. We march with zeal to serve our neighbor with Christian love in our various vocationsin the home, in the school, in the workplace, in the community. We march with confidence in our Lord to lead us through this barren land. We march with hope in our coming Lord to land us safe on Canaan's side.
And we pray, "Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah."
Dr. Paul R. Raabe is professor of exegetical theology (Old Testament) at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine (January, 1999).
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