PROMISES IN PAUL’S CONTEMPORARIES
Paul’s interpretation of the Antichrist and the last days gave rise to serious questions. The Gospel writers were not the only ones searching for answers. The writer of the Epistles of John became very specific regarding Antichrist and the end time. Please note that we are dealing with first generation Christians. John wrote to his followers: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many Antichrist have come. This is how we know that it is the last hour” (I John 2:18). “It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is Antichrist — he denies the Father and the Son (I John 2:22). John continued: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God has overcome the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world, only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (John 5:1-5)?
In the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer regarded Christ as God’s final word during the last days (Hebrews 1:2). There was no more time left. It was the end of the ages (Hebrews 9:26). Man could not afford to neglect his affirmation of faith in Christ (Hebrews 4:7). He went to great length to prove that Jesus was the true and only Christ and that He alone was the genuine “once for all” sacrifice for all sin. He was “THE HIGH PRIEST” who in Himself finalized the “Eternal Covenant” through His own Blood. All of this, Jesus fulfilled in accordance with the Scriptures. This writer directed his message to those who were drifting from faith and doubting the immediate return of Christ (Hebrews 5:11-6: 6). “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of his age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:4-6). The writer held out hope even for these drifters that once had done things God would take into account. “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case –- things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:9-12).
This was the first and not the twenty-first generation of Christians facing a decline in ranks. We hear similar words from our leaders today. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of going, but let us encourage one another –- and all the more as you see the Day approaching. If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sin is left, but only fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be banished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:23-31).
Prolonged difficulties and the delay of the Savior’s rescue mission, made the pastor’s task insurmountable. The pastor to the Hebrews tried to awaken their memories. “Remember those early days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (Hebrews 10:32-39). Therefore, since such a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
The Apostle Peter saw yet another reason for the delay of Christ’s return. The faithful were being built into a spiritual house of living stones for the purpose of being a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices to God (I Peter 2:5). The delay was merely giving God’s people time to make things right (I Peter 4:17). He wrote, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his Promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:8-9). “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and goodly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed it’s coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (II Peter 3:10-13).
The immanent return of Christ and “being saved by grace alone” raised a new brand of Christians. They had their bags packed for heaven and forgot to feed each other. The Gentiles had to help the people in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10). From prison, Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they were saved by grace because God had a job for them (Ephesians 2:10). They had to advance God’s purpose or Promise. To the Thessalonians Paul wrote: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat. We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ, to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right” (II Thessalonians 3:10). Peter was also troubled with the attitude that man could do nothing to please God. He was open to special insight and given the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:16-19). Here is one statement that has escaped because I became blinded by my inability to do anything that God could accept. I kept on hitching the cart before the horse. I too put God’s grace before his work or plan or promises. According to Peter, we will not see an ounce of grace until we appear before Christ and have done what he expects of us. “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy'” (I Peter 1:13-16).
James faced the problem head on, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not backed by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17). James argued that if Abraham had done what his Christians were doing, he would never have reached Canaan. “Trials and tests were pure joy because through them the faithful earned the crown of life (James 1:2-12). In the Letter to the Hebrews, faith is a journey of conquest through suffering. And suffering was evidence of God’s discipline and discipline was proof that the believers were in fact accepted children of the new covenant and that the Lord was actually present in their trials (Hebrews 11-13).
It had become quite apparent to the first believers that the Kingdom and Promises reached beyond little Palestine and even beyond mighty Rome. There was absolutely nothing in this world that could be compared to the Eternal Promises that awaited the faithful. In the Apocalypse of John, the believers do not even have to war any more. This fight was being carried on in heaven on their behalf. The Churches, under the severest persecution in Asia Minor, were to remain steadfast and faithful unto death. Martyrdom was a sure victory and eternal crowns for those who died for Christ. The new world had pearly gates, streets of gold, refreshing streams and ever-bearing edible fruit. The New Jerusalem, headquarters of the Lord, embraced dimensions of universal and eternal proportions. It was huge enough to fulfill the hope and dreams of all those who were faithful to Christ. It was in fact, the final architecture of the Promises. It was a new heaven and a new earth where God was to be with his children forever and ever, and where pain and death were to be no more.
The Apocalypse had a final message for the beast, the false prophet and the harlot. Their habitat was to be utter destruction and hell. They would account for every ounce of Christian blood they had shed and receive everlasting pain and suffering in a world of doom from where no one could rescue them. In fact, these criminals that paraded as self-appointed gods, prophets and saviors would be imprisoned in hell for a thousand years. Then they would be released briefly, perhaps to see whether these false pretenders had a change of heart, but when they return to their old ways of attacking the saints, they would be committed to hell forever. To these martyrs, the message of the Apocalypse was comforting. They had no doubt who these apocalyptic figures were and what they meant. Babylon’s satanic Caesars with their cohorts had paved their empires with the blood of Jesus’ followers. The traitors, who were responsible for the persecutions were of the Hebrew race and those mercenaries who served Rome shed the blood. Knowing that the Lord would terminate these evil men was the hope of every sufferer. God was going to vindicate his people by dooming these monsters of humanity to an eternal hell. Once these perpetrators would be out of the way, humanity would have a chance to see its evil ways and repent. However, the Apocalypse was pessimistic that this would ever happen. Rather, it saw man blame God for what their lord Satan had done to them and their world (Revelation 16:10-11).
We conclude with the words of Paul: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Therefore God gave them over in their sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen” (Romans 1:21, 24-25).