Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 3

René Malgo

The Joyful Exchange
Being a Christian is based not on our good deeds or our achievements, but solely on the suffering of the Lord Jesus. And this is precisely what Martin Luther came to realize. Of course, this does not mean that a Christian would neglect to do good works. However, a Christian’s identity is not based on his achievements, but on those of Jesus Christ. In other words, only he who is carried and sustained by Christ is a Christian, for at the cross a “joyful exchange” took place, as Luther phrased it, and this happy exchange is the way out for poor beggars. Furthermore, this was also the beginning of the end and the reason why Luther could say even 500 years ago, “It is the last hour.”

The Turning Point in Human History
Jesus Christ hung on the cross—isolated, abandoned and abused. A supernatural darkness had covered Jerusalem, filling all bystanders with fear and dread. But then Christ called out: “It is finished!” Upon His last breath the curtain of the temple tore into two pieces from top to bottom, the earth quaked and rocks split (Matt 27:51).

Thus, as was soon to be revealed, the “shameful deed at the cross would at that very moment become the turning point of human history,” as Bible teacher Erich Sauer emphasizes. It was Friday, the sixth day of the week. The Messiah was dead. On the seventh day He rested in the grave. And on the first day of the next week, on a Sunday, the inconceivable occurred: He arose from the dead. He was alive again, and now will be “alive for evermore” (Rev. 1:18).

All of this was the prelude to a “new and living way,” as the Bible says (Heb. 10:20). Jesus Christ has thrown open the door to a new creation. With this, explains Martin Luther, “He initiated renewal and change.”

The new life, made possible by His death and resurrection, did not seem to have much to do with the messianic kingdom of God on earth that the Jews had been expecting. For forty days after His resurrection, Christ explained the true nature of His kingdom to the disciples. When they asked Him about the establishment of the kingdom in Israel, He stressed that they could not know the time or hour, which God the Father in heaven had reserved for Himself (Acts 1:7). The age that had now begun would be characterized by those signs which Christ had foretold on the Mount of Olives before His death. Thus, it was not the kingdom of God but tribulation that awaited Jesus’ disciples.

Then Jesus took His disciples once more to the Mount of Olives and stood before them as God; however, not in order to take up dominion over His kingdom, but to take leave of them. Before their very eyes Christ, shrouded in a cloud, rose up into the realms of heaven. But before the disciples left the Mount of Olives, two angels gave them the assurance that their Lord would return to earth in the same manner in which He had just left them (Acts 1:11).

Paul explains the meaning of these events more extensively and thoroughly than all the other writers of the New Testament. Therefore, it was no accident that Martin Luther, 1,500 years later, recognized the liberating truth of the gospel first and foremost when he studied the letters of the Apostle Paul to the believers in Rome and Galatia.

Luther comprehended what Paul taught: by nature, no man can prevail before the Holy God, whether Jew or Gentile. Luther knew we are all sinners “subject to death and the devil.” The Reformer also held that it would be “pure madness to claim that man in his own strength could love God above all things and keep His commandments.” Thus, no man would have the possibility of ever entering and remaining in God’s kingdom, either here on earth or in heaven. Had God actually established His promised kingdom immediately upon the appearance of His Son on earth, He would have had to condemn every sinner worldwide. That would have meant rapid extinction of the human race, because no one could have withstood God’s judgment.

So God, in His immeasurable grace and love, “gave Himself to us undeserving ones,” remarked the monk Clairvaux. God Himself became our substitute, having taken on human form in the Lord Jesus. That means: Jesus Christ bore our sins and transgressions on the cross, even though as a human being He had led a completely righteous, sinless life. This is the “happy exchange” of which Luther wrote: Jesus Christ, “the rich, noble, righteous bridegroom,” takes us, “the poor, despised, bad little whore,” to be His bride. In other words: The Christian faith means that Christ takes the sins of the believer upon Himself, and in turn bestows upon him or her His “divine righteousness.” Thus, in a symbolic way, “Christ and the soul become one flesh,” as Luther put it, who was fond of likening Christ’s work of salvation to a wedding ceremony.  “Now Christ’s righteousness is mine and my sins are Christ’s: surely an uneven exchange.”

Romans 1:16-17 became for Luther a central Scripture passage: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes; to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.”

The End of the World
For Paul, this was such a profound event that he saw it as “the end of the world” which had come upon his generation (1 Cor 10:11). With this, he did not mean the final destruction of the world, at least not in the way a Hollywood apocalyptic film would show it. The New Testament states it this way in another place: “… But now once in the end of the world has he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26b).

The birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus were the prelude to the so-called end time, the end of all things. A permanent divide had occurred. Paul called this “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). God’s eternal kingdom could now come at any time from heaven to earth. Christ laid the foundation by way of His sacrifice for the reconciliation of the whole world. His substitutionary death has reconciled God with sinful man. Thus, He removed the obstacle of human sin and robbed Satan of his power over a lost mankind. Since then, the door is open equally to Jew and Gentile. God has now become approachable. The last dispensation has begun. Luther realized that we “are now at the dawn of the future life.” The end of the old world had come, now 2,000 years ago. Seen from this perspective, Luther was correct in thinking that he was living in the last days. The same is actually true for each and every generation of Christians.

The Apostle Paul praised the Christians of his time who lived in expectation of the Lord Jesus. He himself expected the Lord’s return in his own lifetime (1 Thess 4:15). Christ also admonished His disciples, while He was still with them: “Be like men who are waiting for their master.” He wants the believer to expect His return and hope for it at all times (Luke 12:35). 

Sometime after Christ’s ascension to heaven, there was an event which the disciple Peter interpreted in a sermon as the fulfillment of an old Jewish prophecy. At the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers in Jerusalem and was visible to all who were present at the feast.

The Holy Spirit was sent to abide with believers during the Lord Jesus’ physical absence. Since that time, as Paul also made clear, each believer is “sealed” with this Spirit of God. The Spirit “connects the saved with the Savior,” writes Erich Sauer. He is the guarantee that they belong to the family of God (Eph 3:14-21). He is also the one who leads people to God. Luther emphasizes this again and again: “We could not know anything about Christ if it were not first revealed by the Holy Spirit.”

On this subject, Peter said: “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh…” (Acts 2:16-17). He saw the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a sign of the last days of world history. The “end of all things” had come close (1 Peter 4:7). Peter, therefore, placed his hope completely on the promised return of his Lord (1 Peter 1:13).

In a letter shortly before his death, however, when Christ still had not returned, Peter pointed out that before God one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. God measures by a different scale. Thus, we should not be surprised when it takes longer than expected until the Lord returns. “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).

The Antichrist
In connection to their end-time convictions, the apostles also pointed to another expectation of the Jewish prophets; namely, that a last great deceiver of mankind would arise shortly before the end of the world, who would oppress God’s people. The apostle John called this end-time deceiver the Antichrist, which Luther quite aptly translated as the “CounterChrist.”

It is interesting that John did not anticipate just one “Counter-Christ” in the future. He too emphasized, “Now is the last hour!” (1 John 2:18, 22). How did he know that? Because now since the true Messiah had appeared, many had become “CounterChrists.” Every person who denies Father and Son is an Antichrist.

Paul viewed it like John: already now the secret and evil spirit of Antichrist is at work in the world. But one day the last great Antichrist, “the son of perdition,” will reveal himself as such when “he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess 2:3-4).

When Paul wrote this, the temple in Jerusalem was still standing, which suggests that Paul was thinking of this temple. Yet in another letter, to the believers in Ephesus, he reasons that the earthly temple is of no account since all who believe in Jesus Christ have become temples of God (Eph 2:21-22). The Jewish temple actually was destroyed a few decades later, just as Jesus Christ had prophesied on the Mount of Olives.

In our time, theologians disagree about whether, concerning the Antichrist, Paul had in mind the Jerusalem temple of his time, a new future temple, or the universal Church of believers. Martin Luther interpreted the temple that Paul talked about as the Christian Church. And that is why he thought that the Antichrist and deceiver who would oppress true believers had arisen within the Church….

Midnight Call - 06/2017

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