Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 7

René Malgo

Christ Must Come
The hope of the Lord Jesus’ return is a strong anchor for the souls of believers (Heb 6:18-19). Nevertheless, there is the danger for us Christians to lose heart when end-time events do not take place as we have wished for and imagined. In a way, this is what happened to Luther, whose early friendliness toward Jews changed to bitter anti-Semitism, when he realized that things were not happening the way he had thought. Yes, our convictions about the end time determine how we live in the here and now.

The Countdown Has Begun
Martin Luther knew that the countdown to the end time had started long before his day. Already in the beginning of his Reformation, he had come to believe that “the papacy was the seat of the real and personified Antichrist,” because the pope wanted “to have God and His Word subordinate to him, with himself in a superior position.” Luther definitely did not point to a specific pope as the Antichrist. For him, Antichrist was a “collective term for an institution which corrupts the truth of Christ,” as explained by Roland Bainton, a Luther biographer. That is why Luther could say that the devil “in these last days is empowering the Antichrist and his anti-Christian realm, and this for the past few centuries.” According to Luther’s understanding, the 1000-year kingdom had come to an end already at the time of Pope Gregory VII—thus, more than 400 years earlier, seen from Luther’s vantage point. With the power hungry Gregory VII, the papacy had become anti-Christian in Luther’s eyes, Satan had been loosed, and the last age of the end-time persecution had begun.

Luther felt confirmed in his view by the words of the renowned Roman theologian Sylvester Prierias, who wrote a rejoinder to Luther’s Theses. Prierias bluntly stated that the pope acknowledged no judge over him and that he could not be removed even if he were “to lead a multitude of nations to the devil and hell.” Such a brazen assertion was a clear indication for Luther: Antichrist, “the son of perdition,” had long ago established himself in the divine temple of the Church. For that reason, “Christ had to come with his judgment,” in fact soon…

The Realm of the Spirit
Luther’s ideas fell on fertile ground. He was not the first one to think that the pope might be the Antichrist. Before his time, medieval church critics and nonconformists had also picked up on the teaching of an Antichrist at the end of time and applied it to the pope.

Various anti-papacy trends contributed to a heightened hope for a thousand-year reign on earth, in Luther’s day and even earlier. However, this time ideas about the thousand-year reign were focused on a time period before the return of the Lord Jesus. The basis for this was laid by the pro-papacy Abbot Joachim of Fiore, about 300 years before Luther. He interpreted Revelation to mean that the thousand-year reign would come before the end time. Joachim envisioned three consecutive kingdoms of God: 1) The age of the Father, dispensation of the law, and fear of God in the Old Testament; 2) The age of the Son, dispensation of grace, and establishment of the Church; followed by 3) A 1000 year period of ministry by the Holy Spirit and contemplative monasticism. The third kingdom would come to full fruition after the final persecutions by Antichrist. Joachim believed the Antichrist to be alive in his day, and thus, that he was living “at the dawn of this new age.”

These thoughts, in somewhat altered form, were later adopted particularly by mendicant orders critical of the pope, monks, itinerant preachers and other sectarian groups. In this way, the idea that a 1000-year reign of peace would eventually replace the corrupt papacy gained influence in various ways among critics of the Church and Rome during the medieval era. Heiko Oberman writes: “The supposed kingdom of the spirit would be accompanied by violent birth pangs, and like a sudden catastrophe overcome powerful opposition.”

And then the catastrophe of the Black Death erupted across Europe, a pestilence that left around 25 million dead. A few decades later, two popes were wreaking havoc for a time by pronouncing anathema over one another, and causing much confusion. It appeared that the end time had commenced. Due to charismatic itinerant preachers calling for penance, the expectation of a thousand-year reign on earth found great favor among the populace, especially when yet a third pope arose to make claims. This end-time awareness in the early Reformation was then intensified by “the seemingly unstoppable advance” of the Ottoman Empire from Islamic Turkey into Christian Europe.

End-time anticipation was particularly prominent in Germany. A few years before Luther’s appearance in the public arena, the German Franciscan monk Johann Hilton even prophesied that the papacy would soon collapse and a Reformation occur, “so that Christians would later be able to withstand the Antichrist.”

Added to this were medieval astrological predictions and folklore, that “at times were strangely exact” concerning the timeframe in which Luther’s Reformation actually did take place, as Gerhard Maier relates. Small wonder then that the adherents of a thousand-year reign on earth would have been very positive about Martin Luther. But Luther was not interested in changing society by force, as many proponents of the “third kingdom” would have liked to see happen.

Luther said: “I will not strive for the gospel with violence and murder.” He knew that a golden age was impossible without the return of the Lord Jesus. He saw the Reformation merely as an improvement of end-time conditions, nothing more. Thus, he definitely was in opposition to certain pious enthusiasts of his time, who mistakenly took the Book of Revelation as a call to change society by force.

End-time Conversion of the Jews
The concepts of an Antichrist and the expectation of a godly kingdom on earth actually have Jewish roots. That is not surprising: The Old Testament of the Christians is the Bible of the Jews. Yet Jews and Christians have never warmed to each other. While in the beginning, religious Jews had persecuted the Christians, later the tables were turned rather readily, especially after Christianity had come to be the dominant culture in Europe.

During the Middle Ages, anti-Semitism was quite the norm. The Jews served as scapegoats for the fears of Christians. England, France, Spain and Portugal expelled the Jews from their countries. From a legal perspective, Jews were living in perpetual subjugation, “because of their unforgivable guilt in the death of Jesus.”

Jews were barred from many professions and trades, and thus found themselves relegated to the money-lending business, since the Church had forbidden Christians to profit from loan interest. Jewish banks grew to be indispensable for society. However, if these financial dealings brought them wealth, it incurred the wrath of the people, who suspected the Jews of being “in league with demonic powers,” in the words of church historian Thomas Kaufmann.

The hatred for Jews had cultural as well as religious motivations. Despite regional rivalries, medieval society was not held together by ethnic origin but by religion, coupled with various superstitions about witches, goblins, saints and ritual murders, the latter shockingly attributed to the Jews. It is amazing that “the Jewish foreign element” was never completely stamped out. And that in turn was thanks to Augustine…

Christianity was facing a problem: If the Church was supposed to be the new and true Israel, why then would there still be an ethnic Israel, a Jewish people? Augustine presented a remarkable solution: The Jews remain to confirm the truth of Christianity. Their existence and their Holy Scriptures prove that the prophecies about the Messiah Jesus had not been Christian fabrications. Thus, Augustine assured at least a modicum of tolerance for the Jews within Christian societies. Augustine also believed that at the end time, during “the persecution by Antichrist,” many Jews would be converted; and then, Jesus Christ would return, bringing the eternal glory of heaven as well as the end of the old world.

Thomas Aquinas, the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages after Augustine, also believed in “a future conversion of the Jewish people.” Bernard of Clairvaux and Joachim of Fiore were of the same opinion. That is why Luther said that with the advent of the Reformation, “a new and final age had begun for the Jews.” In an exposition of one of the Psalms, he remarked that God would convert the Jews when “the fullness of Gentiles had come to salvation”—and this was to happen in the end time. Thus, it is not surprising that at the beginning of the Reformation, Luther wrote, full of optimism: “Truly, since just now the golden light of the gospel is rising and shining forth, there is hope that many Jews will be converted in a conscientious and faithful manner and be earnestly drawn to Christ…”

The friendliness which Luther initially showed toward the Jews was closely related to his new reformative realizations and his end-time expectation. Antecedent to his discovery of the gospel, one can find formulations of medieval, anti-Semitic character in the writings of the then Roman Catholic Bible professor Martin Luther. But at about the same time in which he thought the pope to be the Antichrist and the last days to have commenced, he showed a friendly attitude toward the Jews.

But, this posture changed when the anticipated end-time conversion of the Jews did not come about, and when a few rabbis made denigrating remarks about Christ following an encounter with Luther. Many times thereafter Martin Luther recalled this painful event. Ironically, many Jews saw the radical changes of the Reformation as a sign of the soon appearing of their Messiah, not the true Messiah Jesus. The physical brothers of the Lord turned a cold shoulder to the evangelical Reformation.

Resistance of the Jewish people toward his rediscovered gospel led to Luther’s bitterness. His very last sermon ended in a harsh warning against those Jews who would not be converted, and were “intent on nothing but to exploit and, when possible, to kill Christians.” In regard to the Jews, Luther did not follow his own admonition: “Remain steadfast: for the hope is certain!”

Our hopes and convictions determine how we think and act. It is not by accident that Paul, in view of the Lord Jesus’ return, said we should “be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:8). We, the Christians of today, are confronted with the two questions: What do we really believe about the end time? And, are we in danger of growing bitter, disappointed or even fanatical when things do not happen the way we had thought? It is paramount therefore to take to heart the apostle’s exhortation in every detail: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13).

Midnight Call - 10/2017

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