Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 4

René Malgo

Do Not Doubt
For many Christians, the “end time” is a difficult subject. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, gives many clues concerning the end of the world. However, no other book of the Bible is interpreted and explained by believers in such diverse ways as this one. Luther also had a hard time with this book. His stance, of course, was that “what God has planned will be seen in His time.” Yet he lived expecting these things to be close at hand. He was on the lookout for signs of the soon return of the Lord Jesus, and never doubted that he was living in the last hours of mankind’s history. That is the attitude that we believers of today could adopt from Luther, even though we cannot understand each detail of God’s plan for the end time. Do not doubt: Jesus Christ will be victorious and will return soon!

A Wake-up Call
About 90 years after the birth of Jesus Christ, almost all of His followers had died—and He still had not returned! The Western world would eventually organize their calendar around the birth of Jesus Christ, but that was much later. The authorities of the Roman provinces looked upon the newly developing Christian faith as an obscure Jewish sect. And Christianity was not well received by many of the Jewish people. They did not like it that suddenly some in their midst had begun to tell Gentiles that they too now belonged to the elect people of the Jewish God—all united in the Messiah Jesus. Some of the Jews might even have felt their identity threatened and resisted the Christians, especially those of their fellow Jews who had become believers. One of their strategies to persecute Christians seems to have been maligning them to the Roman occupation authorities.

Meanwhile, the Jewish evangelists had reached many Gentiles in the Mediterranean area with the gospel. Especially in the Roman Province of Asia (in today’s Turkey), several Christian congregations had developed; some had been there for two generations.

Of the apostles only John (who was quite advanced in age) was still alive on the Isle of Patmos, where he had been exiled by the Romans because of his uncompromising devotion to Jesus Christ (Rev 1:9). Followers of Jesus Christ provoked everybody everywhere. Christian businessmen could not remain in their trade guilds, since these brought sacrifices to the gods and Caesar at their feasts. But some local Christian congregations already compromised, by saying it wasn’t all that wrong to partake in these sacrificial festivities (Rev 2:14-20).

It seemed necessary to send a motivating wake-up call before the last apostle died. Thus, God spoke one more time directly and in the most descriptive and strong manner possible, in order to prepare His worldwide body of believers for what was to come. At the direction of Jesus Christ an angel from heaven appeared to John on Patmos to show him in pictorial language what “must shortly come to pass.” John was to write down what he had seen and to communicate it to the seven congregations in Asia (Rev 1:1, 4, 11).

The Holy Spirit overshadowed John four times and led him to four different places, where then several angels, or even Jesus Christ Himself, gave him the visions. The first was on the Isle of Patmos, the second time in heaven, the third in the wilderness, and the fourth on “a great and high mountain” (Rev 1:9-10; 4:1-2; 17:3; 21:10). All of it John wrote down in a book, which is the last of the inspired writings of the Christian faith: the book of Revelation.

Christ Will Be Victorious
Quite understandably, the pictorial language of Revelation has stimulated the imagination of many people. Where else in the Bible do we hear about, among other things, a fiery, water-spewing Dragon with seven heads; frog-like spirits, scorpion-like monster locusts, or a royal woman in the pains of childbirth; 144,000 specially sealed of the tribes of Israel, or a beast arising out of the sea? In Luther’s day, there were some fanatics (as he called them) who tried to forcefully bring God’s kingdom to earth by pointing to this very Revelation. Disgusted by such ideas, Luther could never warm to the last book of the Bible, and once said with little enthusiasm that “Christ is neither taught nor recognizable therein.”  

Later, however, he regretted these words, repudiated them and wrote a new introduction to Revelation, in which he made a greater attempt at drawing distinctions, even daring to move toward interpretation. He viewed Revelation as historical in the broadest sense; namely, he saw the various visions as a chronicle of the Christian churches’ development up to his time. From his perspective, this explanation would have made sense since he was expecting the Lord’s Day at any moment. Now, 500 years later, such interpretation looks like an anachronism to us.

The Revelation remains a mysterious book for many. And yet, despite the antiquated and complex pictorial language, the central message of this book is clear and remains relevant for Christians of the first century, for Christians at the time of the Reformation, for Christians today and in the future.

A Bible teacher illustrated the core of the book with the following anecdote. A group of theology students finished their basketball game. They saw the janitor sitting in a corner reading a book, and asked what he was reading. “The Bible,” he answered. The students then wanted to know which book: “The Revelation.” These educated young gentlemen looked at each other and felt sorry for the poor fellow, who was reading such complicated material. Trying to help him, they asked: “Do you understand what you’re reading?”—“Yes.”—Taken aback, the students prodded further: “Then, what is it about?” His answer: “Jesus is going to win.”

In essence, that is how Luther understood it, and we can embrace this view which he summarized as follows: “Thus, we are not to doubt that Christ is for us and with us even when the worst happens, as we see in this book that Christ will be with His saints throughout all plagues, beasts and evil angels and will finally overcome.” It appears that God intentionally used dramatic pictures to awaken his people, both the true Jews (Rom 2:17-29) and the believing Gentiles, the “partakers of his promise” (Eph 3:6), to assure them that they had placed their faith in the true Messiah.

Revelation points to the end of time, when the last anti-Christian power will control the world (Dan 7; Rev 13). That empire will be a mixture of religion, idol worship, materialism and economic affluence (Rev 17—18).

John called it the great whore of Babylon. The political world regime—represented as an animal—and the idolatrous economic system—pictured as the whore of Babylon upon the beast—will oppress and seemingly overcome the then living believers. To Luther this whore seemed to be the Roman Catholic Church of his time, because it blinded the people with its splendor and turned them away from Christ. Yet at the end, Christ will triumph. First, God will bring about a confrontation of the political power of the beast and the idolatrous economic system of the whore. Following this, Christ Himself will return in power and glory. The believers will then be resurrected and reign with their Lord “for ever and ever” (Rev 20—22).

A Theology of the Cross
Revelation essentially points out that although Jesus Christ has been victorious through His death on the cross, and can return at any time to bring us His New World, those who belong to Him will have to expect sorrows, hardship and persecution until that time. Martin Luther recognized this truth when he took a stand against the worldview of his time and no longer preached a papal “Theology of Glory,” but a scriptural “Theology of the Cross.” For just as Jesus Christ suffered and overcame, so also those who belong to Him will suffer but be victorious in the end. As Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon, who was discouraged about his own failures and devilish temptations: “Do not fear, we will triumph, sinners though we are.”

Satan is raging. He knows that he has irrefutably lost the earth, even the whole universe, to Jesus Christ and all who believe in Him. This also explains the purpose for our present age, characterized by faith, struggle, seduction, persecution and tribulation, and why Christ has still not returned. “His intent is no less than to generate a royal family” for God’s approaching New World, as the German Bible teacher Eric Sauer declares.

In the face of a defeated enemy’s fury, Luther could therefore say: “When the devil is harassing us, then we are on the right path.” Satan’s attacks confirm the truth of the gospel. No Christian need despair, regardless of how dark the night of this world may get, because he knows that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). And so Luther rejoiced: “Well, if that is true, let us offer up all we have and suffer what we can, if afterwards we shall become such great lords.”

Midnight Call - 07/2017

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