Luther’s View of the End Time – Part 5

René Malgo

A Jew by Birth
For many Christians nowadays, it is self-understood that God has a special plan for the nation and the land of Israel. God gave a clear sign of this with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Jesus Christ is a Jew. He went into the unseen realm of heaven from Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, and He will return to the Mount of Olives. Yet these things have not always been accepted with certainty.

In Luther’s time, the idea prevailed that the Church was the new Israel. Luther himself saw it that way. This religious conviction has a long history. It was generated in part by an event which also has been seen as a sign from God in church history: the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 A.D. (Matt. 24—25). This is something we should not forget. It makes it easier to understand Luther’s, as well as the early Christians’ expectation of a fast-approaching end time. From the era following the Temple destruction and the Diaspora of Jews throughout the world until Luther’s time, it seemed an impossibility that Israel could ever again come to be a nation in its own country.

A Sign of the End
The roots of the Christian faith are decidedly Jewish, “for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Luther also acknowledged this in the beginning stages of his Reformation. Today, he is notorious for his hostile comments about the Jews during the latter years of his life, but that had not always been the case. When his adversaries accused him during the 1520s of rejecting the virgin birth, he defended himself in writing a (for that time) highly unusual pamphlet entitled: “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew.”

Christians actually do tend to forget this fact. Jesus Christ was and is a “born Jew” (2 Tim 2:8). Luther acknowledged it and therefore spoke positively about the people from whom our Lord came into His human existence. He deplored the fact that Christians have visited much evil upon the Jews and said: “If I had been a Jew and had seen such fools and knaves teaching and overseeing the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a pig than a Christian.”

It was the hope of the Reformer that “provided one dealt kindly with the Jews and instructed them purely from the Holy Scriptures, many should become true Christians and return to their fathers, prophets and patriarchs’ faith.” Luther knew that the apostles “also were Jews,” that they dealt with the Gentiles as brothers and thus led them to faith. So now it should be the same in reverse.    

To Martin Luther, his new discovery of the gospel and the spread of his Reformation thoughts were signs of the end time. He saw in his days the fulfillment of the Lord Jesus’ prophecy on the Mount of Olives: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matt 24:14). The end was near because now the true gospel was preached in the whole world. At least this was Luther’s conviction.

Because of this expectation, he had an attitude of cautious optimism vis-à-vis the Jewish people, and encouraged others toward a friendly disposition. For soon now the Jew Jesus Christ would appear, and with Him the Day of the Lord.

Luther’s Circumcision
It is almost ironic that the Christian faith initially spread via the Jewish synagogues. During his missionary travels the Apostle Paul made sure, whenever possible, to proclaim the gospel to the Jews before speaking to the Gentiles. Since the Jews at that time established their houses of worship and fellowship wherever they found themselves across the world, these were ideal places to preach the gospel of the Messiah. The relative safety within the Roman Empire, the numerous Mediterranean harbor cities, the network of roads, and especially the fact that Greek had become established as the language of worldwide commerce: all this enabled the first disciples of Jesus Christ to spread the gospel at an amazing speed.

However, with time things changed. After many Jews had initially come to believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah, especially in Jerusalem, Jews in general began to oppose the Christians more and more. And then, as Christ had foretold, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The first Christians began to believe that Israel had been “cast out by God because of its disobedience and rejection of Christ.”

The idea of God’s condemnation of Israel quickly gained ground within Christendom and was commonplace in the theological thought of the Middle Ages. Luther’s pivotal concern in his Reformation was the question of God’s grace. Thus, one can hardly blame him that despite his Jew-friendly written words, he didn’t see much of a future for Israel with a state of its own. Later, he even swore that he would be the first to let himself be circumcised, “in the event that the Jews should manage to once again establish a state,” according to church historian Heiko Oberman. He thought that a widespread conversion of Jews before the end of the world was “perhaps” possible, “but that they would return into Israel’s country and rebuild the city” would in his opinion never happen.

If Luther could have lived to witness the establishment of a state of Israel, what would have been his end time view then?

The Last Times Are Here
Perhaps at the very time that John received the Revelation, there circulated among the believers the so-called Barnabas letter. Its author, probably a Hebrew Christian, was not known. In some groups, this letter was even accepted as part of Scripture. The writer of this Barnabas letter held that, based on the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews had lost their covenant “for all time,” that Israel had been “abandoned.” His conclusions: “Now we are the ones whom he has led into the blessed country,” and the Christians have now “inherited” the covenant.

On first glance, one could have the impression that this author expressed similar views as the apostles. Paul called Christians the true “circumcision” (Phil 3:3). And it is actually correct that a Jew can only receive the prophetically promised inheritance if he acknowledges the Lord Jesus as his Messiah. This is without doubt.

However neither the apostles nor Paul ever claimed that the Jews had lost their promises “for all time.” To the rhetorical question: “Hath God cast away his people?” Paul resolutely answered: “God forbid!” (Rom 11:1). The Apostle liked to emphasize that Gentiles became “co-heirs” through the Messiah Jesus. And particularly because of that they should not boast against Israel, since they as other nations were “grafted in” and added on. Yes, many fell and were “cut off” when they rejected the Lord Jesus, but their number will someday be full again. That means when “the fullness” of the Gentile nations have joined the body of Christ, then also “all Israel shall be saved” and reconciled to God (Rom 11:12-26).

The apostles did not assert that Israel had been replaced by a Gentile church, rather that Gentiles would be co-heirs with Israel.

Even after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, they counted on a coming kingdom in Israel; namely, when the nation Israel would accept their king (Acts 1:6; 3:19-21). Yet, as early as the middle of the 2nd century, defender of the faith Justin Martyr claimed the church to be the “true spiritual Israel.” Since that time, perhaps even earlier, this has been the Christian conviction. Initially, this thinking was also connected to an expectation of Jesus Christ’s soon return.

According to the Barnabas letter, the Antichrist was at the door since the destruction of Jerusalem: “Let us therefore be alert in the last days!” For “the day is near that all is lost for the evil one; near is the Lord and his reward.”

Ignatius of Antioch, who lived at the turn of the first century, went in a similar direction as the Barnabas writing. In his letter to the Ephesians, he said: “The last days are at hand.” Like the apostles, Ignatius looked upon the coming of Jesus Christ as the eradication of the “old kingdom” and the beginning of “what has been prepared by God.” In other words: with Christ a new and final dispensation had begun. In his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius therefore stated that Jesus Christ “appeared at the end.” For the first Christians, their time was the end time because in the person of their Lord, the kingdom of God had come close. Therefore, the end of all things had to be near. —How could those first Christians foresee that things would continue so much longer?

The destruction of the Temple really was a sign of the end time, just as today’s Christians see the establishment of the State of Israel as a sign of the nearing end. In the last analysis, Christians of every generation can detect signs of the end time. And that is not strange because the end is near during every generation. Luther was no exception, and Christians at present are no exception. This is how God ordained it.

It is an important aspect of the life of every serious Christian to be always conscious of the fact that we are living in the last days and that our Lord can return at any time. Thus, he who is always prepared to meet his Lord is standing on safe ground; but he who says: “My Lord delayeth his coming” and begins to “eat and drink with the drunken,” for him the Lord will “come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:48-51).

The response of every Christian to the promise of the Lord Jesus: “Surely I come quickly,” can only be this: “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

Midnight Call - 08/2017

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