Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 1

René Malgo

In the year 2017, Lutherans the world over are celebrating 500 years of Reformation. It started in 1517, when a Bible scholar and monk in Wittenberg, Saxony published 95 propositions against Roman Catholic dogma and practices. Viewed objectively, these “Theses” were not particularly revolutionary. And yet the times proved to be ready for this spark to blaze into a brush fire. Today, this monk is known around the world: Martin Luther. During this so-called “Luther year,” we remember how he managed to bring about an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. Some say that he thus heralded the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times.

However, this was not so in Luther’s own mind. The Reformer never thought of himself as the forerunner of a new era, but as one who proclaims the end of days, as Noah did before the flood. When Luther made his Scriptural discoveries, he never envisioned establishing a new church; rather, a needed reform of the existing church, before the soon onset of the “Day of the Lord” and the end of this world.

In the early days of the Reformation, Luther wrote to a friend: “I am convinced the last day is at the door.” He stressed this again 20 years later: “it is the last hour.” He believed that Jesus Christ would return soon, destroy the old creation, and usher in a new heavenly earth. Luther could not have conceived of the earth still existing in our day, with Christians celebrating the 500th anniversary of his Reformation. At that time, he was convinced that the world “could not last another hundred years.”

Why was this Luther’s opinion? And is this something that we today can learn from and emulate; namely, the Reformer’s expectation of imminence? The answers to these two questions are to be the subject of this series. It is not, however, my intent to portray the whole range of Luther’s thoughts. I am to touch only briefly on a few points of his theology, on others not at all. During his life the Reformer did revise some of his opinions. But he held firmly to the one basic conviction: “Surely everything is at an end.”

This series is meant to encourage a basic Christian virtue; namely, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to look “for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Luther’s 500 Year Anniversary gives us occasion to look at the Reformer and to see how he, in his expectation of the returning Lord, is an example and incentive for us in our daily lives.

As in the Days of Noah
Martin Luther saw many signs for the soon return of the Lord Jesus in his time. He believed that most of the prophecies given by Jesus Christ and the apostles were being fulfilled in his day. In retrospect, one could say that Luther was mistaken; one might even smile about his seeming ignorance. But that attitude would not be justified, because our Lord will definitely come; in fact, “when one has forgotten about it,” as Luther already understood. Waiting for Jesus Christ can never be wrong; rather, it is a duty for every believer. Luther fulfilled this duty.

The Doors to Paradise
The story of Martin Luther will only be outlined at this point. At 22 years of age, he was outside in a heavy thunderstorm, was injured and felt that he had barely escaped certain death. Thereupon he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, against his father’s wishes. He became a monk and later professor of biblical studies at the newly established university in Wittenberg, Saxony. There, after long spiritual torment, he found “the doors to Paradise” when he discovered in the apostle Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, that salvation and a place in heaven are not attained by good works, but solely through the grace of God. Luther took a public stand against the practice of selling indulgences, which let money fill the coffers of the Church. Traveling clerical “vendors” led simple people to believe that letters of indulgence bought atonement for some of their sins. Luther was not alone: capable colleagues and friends such as George Spalatin or Philip Melanchthon provided crucial support.

Luther was shocked when he heard that Pope Leo X deliberately placed himself above God’s Word by supporting the indulgence trade, which was not taught anywhere in the Bible. Luther came to the conviction that the papacy in this case was contrary to God and the Christian faith. His Reformative writings grew sharper and more insightful. Luther stood in opposition to the Roman papacy, which dominated Christianity in medieval Europe, and the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who governed Germany plus many of the surrounding areas. Thanks to the protection of the Saxon Elector Frederick the Wise, Luther did not come to be burned at the stake but instead spent some time in protective custody at Wartburg. It was there that he began to translate the Bible into German, encouraged and supported by Melanchthon and many of his Wittenberg colleagues.

The schism in the Church occurred without Luther’s intent. Luther could not reform the Catholic Church, and thus in the end a new church evolved. Many of those who were exasperated with Rome joined Luther’s church, among them also some German princes and knights. When religious zealots appeared who took Luther’s teaching to an extreme, the Reformer had to deal with them as well as with rebelling peasants who cited his writings. In these matters, Luther chose to side with the authorities.

Inspired by Luther, Huldrych Zwingli launched his Reformation in Zürich, Switzerland. Later however, due to disagreements concerning the nature of communion, a rift developed between the two. Luther had to deal with conflict up to the end of his life. He had arguments in writing with the scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam, as well as with King Henry VIII in England. Luther was something of a celebrity in the Germany of that time. His writings accounted for the major output of the newly invented German printing press, and his portrait “in thousands of engravings and woodcuts” was disseminated among the people.

He found personal happiness in marriage to the former nun Katharina von Bora. Even though there was in his opinion “only a short time until the right judge” Jesus Christ would return, he married to send a message to the then religious community, to whom this was shocking. Catholics thought that this unholy union of a monk and a nun would surely produce monsters. There was great relief upon the birth of the first normal, healthy child. Luther’s family life became an example to many.

Yet the theological conflicts, numerous health problems, melancholy and bouts of depression, as well as the premature death of his “favorite” daughter, caused him to become more and more pessimistic toward the end of his life. Even though he was very aware of the fact that true believers would be attacked by the devil, he could not escape being scarred by the battle for the faith and the struggle against satanic temptations. He died at the age of 62 years, while he was on the road to settle a dispute between two converted counts of Mansfeld.

The Day of the Lord Is at Hand
Luther had discovered the Bible in a new light. For him, it was the ultimate authority for all questions of faith. Some believers today might call him a “fundamentalist.” Yet many fundamentalists of our day see some things quite differently than Luther did—especially when it comes to the end time. This is easy enough to explain: Luther lived in a different age.

In many conservative circles today, the prevalent teaching is that there are two phases of the Lord’s return. In the first, invisible to the world, he comes to take true believers around the globe from earth into heaven. Following this event, while the true Church is in heaven, God will punish the world with a terrible time of judgments. After this “tribulation,” which will last a definite time, Christ will return with the Church to earth to set up his thousand-year reign in Israel.

This concept of the end time was not known in Luther’s day. It originated much later, in the 19th century, when John Nelson Darby in England came to the aforementioned conclusions following an intensive study of the Bible. He gained, somewhat like Luther 300 years earlier, a considerable influence among many Christians—although to a lesser extent than the Reformer.

Martin Luther at any rate was sincerely convinced that his interpretation of the end times was in agreement with God’s Word. He saw his world full of “examples of God’s wrath and judgment.” To him, humanity seemed ripe for the Day of the Lord—that is, the day when Jesus Christ returns to judge the world and to establish a new righteous earth. Luther saw himself as an end-time prophet like Noah—not that he thought of himself as on the same level as Noah. Nonetheless, he and his fellow preachers called Catholics, noblemen, townspeople and peasants to repentance and a return to God, as Noah had done in ancient times—“because the day of the Lord is at the door,” as Luther said. The apocalypse was at hand.

Luther based his comparison to Noah on Jesus Christ’s Olivet Discourse about the end of time, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 24—25. “For Christ himself declared that the last days will be like unto the days of Noah,” said Luther. And these last days had now arrived in his time, “for the signs foretold by Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul have almost all been fulfilled,” Luther thought. Of course, the exact day of the Lord’s return “cannot be known,” but “everything is surely at the end.”

The new diseases, for instance, that had come to Europe “from the islands found in the ocean,” were seen by Luther as a “sign of the end,” according to historian Heinz Schilling. Also, the recent discoveries by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, among others, became for Luther signs of the end time. Any extraordinary natural disasters of his time, like storms and floods, were seen by the Reformer as “signs of the times.” The pope and his followers were the “false prophets” foretold by Christ on the Mount of Olives. Religious Rome was therefore the seductive whore Babylon from Revelation chapter 17, with the blood of true believers on her hands.  And when the Ottoman Empire of Turkey had advanced to the gates of Vienna, Luther thought this to be God’s judgment on a Christian Europe, as well as an instrument of Satan in his end-time revolt against God. Luther once considered the Turks to be “Gog and Magog” from Revelation chapter 20, but later as the first beast of Revelation chapter 13, which at another point he had also equated with the Habsburg emperor. Luther was not loath to correct and adapt his understanding of Bible prophecy, when he felt this was necessary. In the final analysis, Luther believed the papacy in Rome and the Turks’ Islam together would carry out Antichrist’s seduction and persecution during the last days, as outlined in Scripture. The true Gospel, that Luther had rediscovered and which now was being proclaimed everywhere, was God’s answer to these end-time attacks of the devil. To Luther this proved to be a further sign that the end had to be near (Matt 24:14).

Waiting for the Lord
Luther believed that signs relating to the near end of the world could fill a whole book. At times his interpretation of those signs could be quite creative, so to speak. At the height of the peasant uprising, he saw a winter rainbow as a sign of divine wrath; while the rebellious Thomas Müntzer interpreted the same natural phenomenon as a “guarantee of God’s approval and help.” For Luther, the events taking place in the Church and the world simply coincided too clearly with the prophecies of the Bible. He couldn’t come to any other conclusion than: “the day of the Lord cannot be far, for the Scripture argues for it powerfully.” Consequently, the Reformer desired for the community of Christians to constitute a “barrier” against “God’s wrath,” as they, filled with the Holy Spirit, would wrestle for lost mankind with prayer, tears and preaching up to the “hour of judgment.” Luther used the fulfilled end-time prophecy and the many signs which he thought to recognize in his day to call for people to return to God.

Luther’s end time interpretation did not always hit the mark; when the need presented itself in matters of detail, he again and again made them fit the current events of his day. The same thing happens to those of us who, like Luther, want to match Bible prophecy to current events. That is not quite as terrible as some critical minds make it out to be, when they find fault with the “end time specialists.” Naturally, we should beware of misleading date speculations, conspiracy theories, fortune-telling, esoteric sign interpretations, and emotional fanaticism. But the fundamental principle is this: Jesus Christ expects his disciples to be like “men who wait for their master” (Luke 12:36). And this is what Luther did.

Christ reprimanded the Jewish Pharisees who rejected Him, by saying that they could predict bad weather by the color of the morning sky, yet were unable to judge “the signs of the time” (Matt 16:3). Signs of His appearance had been given in the Old Testament. The Jewish Pharisees could have recognized Jesus Christ as their Messiah. The New Testament confirms signs of Jesus Christ’s return. Therefore, it cannot be wrong to be alert and to wait for the Lord Jesus as Luther did; to stand up and fight for a lost world with prayer, preaching and weeping. That is our commission, even if our interpretations are not always correct.

The Lord Jesus encourages us to keep watch, and attaches a promise to it: “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (Luke 12:37) .

Midnight Call - 04/2017

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