Through many tribulations

Those who say the church will not have to endure tribulation are not careful readers of Scripture. Paul and Barnabas told the disciples in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that it is “through many tribulations” that “we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul knew this all too well, having been stoned and left for dead during his first visit to Lystra.

Paul and Barnabas at Lystra Acts 14:8-18

There is an old saying that “you have to go through hell before you get to heaven.” This is not, however, what Paul and Barnabas meant when they said “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Entering the kingdom of God does not simply mean going to heaven when we die. There is the promise of rest for those who have persevered and finished their course of faith on earth, but there is also a sense in which “the kingdom of God” is already present even in the midst of “may tribulations.”

The grace to persevere under trial, to keep focused on that ultimate destination, is itself a gift from God to the faithful. Through the example of suffering, the faithful bear witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God upon the kingdom of this world. As Jesus suffered before entering into glory, so the church shares with him in his suffering in order that she might share also with him in his glory. The kingdom of God is present in both the suffering of this life and the glory of the life to come.

The “many tribulations” which the faithful must endure are the birth pains of the new creation. The seed of the kingdom is there, planted and taking root, but the germination process will often be difficult. The sun may seem, at time, unbearably hot; the wind, intolerably strong; the storm, unceasing. Through it all, however, is the abiding, personal presence of of him who endured it all for the sake of his chosen ones. When those “many tribulations” seem intense and impossible to endure, it is his voice we hear, saying, “Peace. Be still.”

Where Christ is, there his kingdom begins.

Those pugnacious “super apostles”

Among the most pugnacious and disagreeable of Paul’s opponents were the so-called “super apostles,” those who claimed a superior knowledge of the mysteries of God and derided Paul as a novice. Two of the worst offenders were Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were propagating the outlandish claim “that the resurrection has already happened.” Paul disowned these men and their claims, noting that “They are upsetting the faith of some.”

The claim by Hymenaeus and Philetus “that the resurrection has already happened” was “upsetting” to some because it was self-serving and self-glorifying. It set these “super apostles” above those, like Paul, who humbly and freely admitted that “the resurrection from the dead” was a goal which they had “not yet attained” (Philippians 3:12-16).

The resurrection is the outcome of a life lived in obedience to Christ. Paul was correct in his attitude of humility, knowing that the closer he got to the goal, the less he should think of himself. Union with Christ was, for Paul, a lifelong journey which required dying to self in order to be fully realized. This side of eternity, he knew that he could never confidently claim to have reached this ultimate outcome without calling attention to himself instead of Christ.

The resurrection, after all, is all about Christ. Inasmuch as we experience Christ working in our lives to transform us out of a life of sin and into a life of obedience, we can experience something of the benefits of the resurrection now. But the full implications of the resurrection will not be realized until the final consummation at the last day. In Christ, the last day is brought into the present from the future. But by claiming “that the resurrection has already happened,” Hymenaeus and Philetus were projecting themselves from the present into the future, thus “upsetting the faith of some” by setting themselves above all accountability and discipline. They were free to “live and let live,” indulge every carnal passion, and look down upon those pitiful souls who had not yet realized such “freedom.”

Paul warns Timothy to avoid such persons and to go about his work faithfully, not quarreling about words but “rightly handling the word of truth.” For the truth, spoken humbly yet unashamedly, will expose every lie for what it is.

Christian hope and the resurrection

Scripture is its own best interpreter, the saying goes. An “obscure” passage may seem less obscure when interpreted in light of a more straightforward passage. Consider Paul’s words of encouragement to the believers in Corinth, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).

Paul is here restating what he has previously said (if the scholars are correct in their historical chronology of his letters) in that favorite passage of dispensationalists, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

The dispensationalist interpretation of the latter passage, that this is a reference to the so-called “rapture” of the church, is a classic exercise in missing the point. The Christian hope is not about flying away, but about being raised up.

Both 2 Corinthians 4:13-14 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14 have a similar structure. Paul ties the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead to the resurrection of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and he will, therefore, also raise those who put their faith in Jesus. There is both a continuity and a discontinuity between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of believers.

On the one hand, Jesus’ resurrection happened at a particular moment in history. Jesus is the prototype of the redeemed humanity, the new creation, which still awaits its full and final consummation.

On the other hand, when that final consummation happens, when the dead in Christ are raised to new life, it will be the realization of that which God already accomplished when he raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead will be one and the same. As the resurrection of Jesus was the ground of all Christian hope in this world, so it will be the life-giving reality which ushers in the next world.

Resurrection, reinstatement, and replication

John’s Gospel is the most self-contained of all the Gospels. The ordeal of Jesus’ passion is presented as embodying the “tribulation” that the whole church must endure to the end, with Judas cast in the role of “the son of destruction” (John 17:12) and the hour in which the Apostles will be “scattered, each to his own home” (John 16:31) being the apostasy that must necessarily precede the Day of the Lord, that is, the resurrection (Peter and his three denials being, perhaps, the embodiment of this episode).

Christian eschatology is nothing if not simple common sense. The Greek term for “falling away” is apostasia, literally, “standing off.” Conversely, “resurrection” in Greek is anastasis, literally, “standing again.” Simple logic dictates that a “standing again” be preceded by a “standing off.” So when Paul says, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 2, that “the Day of the Lord” (connected again, implicitly, with the resurrection) will not come unless the apostasy comes first, he is merely stating the obvious. It is a scenario as old as Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve fell away by eating the forbidden fruit, had their nakedness (that is, their inner man of lawlessness) revealed, and had to face the judgment of God, being able to “stand again” only after God himself had intervened to provide them an adequate covering for their nakedness. If you want to understand “the end,” then go back to “the beginning” and everything will make sense.

Following his resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (John 21). There, he reminds Peter, in particular, of his apostasy (through symbols that recall the night of his denial, such as the breaking of bread and a charcoal fire), reinstates him in love (asking him three times, “Do you love me?”), and then says to him, “Follow me.”

Previously, in a conversation with Peter in chapter 13, Jesus said, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (v. 36). The conversation in chapter 21 closes the circle. Jesus, having gone to his death on the cross and having risen in triumph over sin and death, has established the pattern that Peter is now called to follow, even though it may lead him to a place he does not want to go. John states several times throughout his Gospel that Jesus said this or that “to indicate the kind of death he was going to die.” Now, he writes that Jesus said this to Peter “to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”

Peter, and by implication all who would follow Jesus, must now replicate Jesus’ ministry of redemption and transformation, up to and including making the ultimate sacrifice out of love for him. The path of each individual may not be completely identical. John, for instance, would not die a martyr’s death but would, rather, glorify God through a life of abiding faith that would become an extension of the very life of Christ (“If it is my will that he abide until I come, what is that to you?”). Yet, all who follow Christ are called to hold back nothing, including life itself, from the service of his kingdom.

Millennium typology

Six years ago, Peter Leithart wrote about an interesting take on the millennium he had come across, from an obscure Patristic commentary.

In his commentary on Revelation (in Greek Commentaries on Revelation (Ancient Christian Texts), Oecumenius interprets the millennium as the period between Christ’s incarnation and His ascension. During “the time of the incarnation of the Lord, the devil was bound and was not able to resist the marks of the Savior’s deity” (87). He is probably the only commentator ever to offer such an interpretation.

On the other hand, the “little while” during which Satan is released is “the time between the incarnation of the Lord and the consummation of the present age.”

So a big number represents three years, and the phrase “a little while” stands for thousands? Oecumenius has what you call an uphill battle to make that one convincing.

One of the frustrations with reading the lesser known ancient Fathers is a lack of exegetical consistency. Leithart is correct, of course, in saying Oecumenius would be fighting an uphill battle to make his argument convincing. He might, however, have been on firmer ground, at least typologically, if he had seen the “little while” of Satan’s release as beginning with Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and ending, decisively, with the resurrection.

An even more consistent interpretation in this direction would see “the millennium” as encompassing not the whole period of Christ’s incarnation, but the period beginning immediately after Jesus’ temptation experience (Luke records at this point that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time,” 4:13) when he declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17) and, thus, ending in Gethsemane. During that period, as the Gospels record, Satan was literally powerless to prevent Jesus from healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, even raising the dead. It is no stretch to say Satan was, indeed, “bound” during this period, at least with regard to his ability to interfere with Jesus’ ministry.

This is not to suggest that traditional arguments concerning the millennium are off the table. It is merely to suggest that the three years encompassing Jesus’ earthly ministry may be seen as a type of what John would later envision in the Apocalypse as “the thousand years.” I don’t think I am going out on a limb in suggesting there are incidents during Jesus’ first advent that were portents of his second advent. The acts which he performed, utterly uninhibited by Satanic interference, were signs of the age to come. What seemed extraordinary then, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, will be quite ordinary when the kingdom Jesus declared to be “at hand” comes in its fullness.