Every religious person in Palestine desperately wanted the Promised One—the Messiah—to arrive, set up His Kingdom, chase out the Roman oppressors, and spread prosperity throughout the land. All the Jews, leaders and followers alike, focused on the prophecies of the coming powerful King and totally ignored, or interpreted away anything about His suffering and dying and the resurrection.
Nobody in Palestine—not even Jesus’ own disciples—had a clear understanding of what was happening. Even weeks after His resurrection, and who knows how much explanation, we read this scene just before He returned to heaven:
“The disciples gathered around Jesus and asked Him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” Acts 1:6 (NIV)
Wait! What? No kingdom? No sitting on thrones reigning with Jesus? After three years of traipsing up and down Palestine, now we have to trudge to the ends of the earth?
Even though the disciples had heard all the prophecies about the non-Jews being reached, it still took months before they finally began to understand and act on what Jesus had told them. And it was fifteen years before Paul was finally sent off on his first missionary journey to the non-Jews.
We read the story, with the hindsight of nearly two-thousand years, and shake our heads, wondering how those Jews could be so dumb, not to understand the prophecies in the Old Testament.
Right! But what about us? I grew up in an evangelical church that majored in teaching prophecy of the end times. It was all there—every event, every time period—from the visions of Daniel to the scenes in Revelation—was neatly explained, categorized and plotted chronologically in charts ten to twenty feet long.
When Jo and I joined Wycliffe in 1965, and told the churches that we were starting a job that would take at least twenty years to complete, some of our hearers expressed doubts that we would complete the task, saying, “The Lord will return before then.”
The older I get and the more I read the Bible, the more doubts I have about the accuracy of our theology of the end times. Most preachers, authors, and bloggers are looking forward to something they strongly desire. We listen, read, and form opinions, but . . . . Are we like those ancient Jews who were fixated on an earthly kingdom right there and then? What are we skipping over, ignoring or explaining away?
Yes, Jesus is coming back, but when it comes to the details, I suggest we hold our opinions lightly. Instead we need to focus on the warning Jesus gave to work hard at our assigned tasks—the evangelization of the world and the discipling of the nations. “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” Mark 13:32 (NIV)
All our adult lives Jo and I have been going flat out, serving God in many different ways—raising a family that loves Jesus, and working with Wycliffe in various aspects of Bible translation for fifty years.
Our North American culture cries out to us, “Enough already! Sit down! Relax! You’ve earned your rest. Take it easy from here on.”