Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who Is, Are, Was, Were the Antichrist(s)?--I

This creature called “the Antichrist” is very popular today among those who claim to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth. As we shall see, he always has been. The modern manifestation is embodied within the premillennial theory, the “1,000 year reign” doctrine. The idea, briefly, runs something like this. Very soon, the “rapture” will take place (all the faithful will disappear from the earth to be with Christ for a while). Then there will be seven years of “tribulation,” horrors upon the earth such as there have never been before. The “Antichrist”—a human leader--will become publicly known during this period, and because of the “tribulation” and the charisma of this “future fuehrer” (as he has been called), multitudes will follow him. However, he will be a bitter enemy of Christianity, and will lead the world towards the final, great earthly struggle, the Battle of Armageddon, which will take place in the country of Israel and will involve nearly all the nations of the world. Right before the nations of the earth utterly obliterate themselves in this battle, the Lord Jesus will return with His saints, destroy the Antichrist, and inaugurate a reign of peace and tranquility that will last 1,000 years. There is much more to premillennialism than this, and there are variations upon the above scenario. But this is the basic idea, and regarding the “antichrist,” he is anticipated by nearly all to be a charismatic leader who will deceive many.

I am not among the “nearly all,” and I will demonstrate why in this series.

The “antichrist” is supposedly found in many passages in the Bible, but under a different name. The king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4), the little horn of Daniel 7:8 and 8:9, the man of sin (II Thess. 2:3), and the beast of Revelation 13:1. Matthew 24 provides the “signs” that precede the 2nd coming of Christ to set up His millennial kingdom, while the book of Revelation provides much of the detail. Check my blog on Revelation for a different perspective. Interestingly, the “antichrist” has had a long and varied history since the 2nd century. There has probably not been a single generation since the 1st century in which someone has been pegged with this title. The range of views is incredible. We will take a look at the “antichrist” down through history in part two of this series.

Who Is, Are, Was, Were the Antichrist(s)?--II

Regarding the “antichrist” down through history, some Bible students have maintained that there was a Jewish “antichrist” legend taken up by Christians. I have found no historical proof of this, thus the apostle John (the only biblical writer who uses the term “antichrist”) got his language from the Holy Spirit and not Jewish custom. Others have suggested that the “antichrist” is not a person, but a principle, where there has also been the idea that the “antichrist” is some historical personage. This last idea is, by far, the most popular down through the centuries.

Early references to the antichrist were to Roman emperors Caligula (37-41 A.D) or Nero (54-68). There was also the idea that Simon Magus (of Acts 8 fame) was the “antichrist”; a long, and interesting, “history” (mythical) followed Simon the sorcerer, of which it is not relevant to pursue in this series. Nero was especially popular in the early centuries following Christ (i.e., the 2nd through 4th centuries). No one knew where Nero’s grave lay, so there were occasional sporadic rumblings, especially during times of persecution, that he would imminently return from the dead. According to Augustine and Jerome, many people believed that the apostle John also was not dead, but sleeping, and would come forth at the same time as Nero and testify against the emperor, anointing him as the “antichrist.” This, obviously, never happened.

Other claims as to who the “antichrist” is were equally extraordinary. Two early Christian “fathers,” Iranaeus and Hippolytus, writing in the late 2nd-early 3rd centuries, argued that the “antichrist” would spring from the tribe of Dan—Deuteronomy 33:22 reads, “Dan is a lion’s whelp and he shall leap from Bashan,” and even Jacob, in Genesis 49:17, predicted “Dan shall be a serpent by the way…that bites the horse’s heel.” Very clear references to the “antichrist”! However, these “powerful” arguments gave way to other (equally?) weighty tomes. In the 4th century, the Arian heresy was nominated for the role of “antichrist.” Cyril of Jerusalem, a 4th century bishop) suggested that the “antichrist” was a magician who would take control of the Roman empire. Many Protestants, after the Reformation, equated the Pope with the “antichrist.” An 1864 volume of the Millennial Harbinger, Alexander Campbell’s monthly journal, quotes an article from the Prophetic Times stating that French emperor Louis Napoleon had all the signs of becoming the “antichrist.” Not many years ago, Henry Kissinger was nominated for the role, and it is not surprising that many believers today are suspicious that Barack Obama might be this dastardly fellow. Well, Barack certainly doesn’t seem to be very interested in spreading Christianity around the world, that’s for sure.

The above is a very cursory examination of the “antichrist” down through history. And all of this is very curious, given the fact that the term “antichrist” is found in only four Scriptures in the entire Bible. Talk about building a mighty structure of a very thin foundation…Well, in our third, and final, article in this series, we will look at these four Scriptures and see if we can determine who this “antichrist” was—or actually, “antichrists”, for there were more than one.

Who Is, Are, Was, Were the Antichrist(s)?—III

The four Scriptures that use the term “antichrist” are as follows:

I John 2:18—“Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.”

I John 2:22—“Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.”

I John 4:3—“And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already it is in the world.”

II John 7—“For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist.”

That’s it, the only Scriptures that use the term “antichrist.” Please note that none of these Scriptures are in the book of Revelation, yet premillennial commentaries of that book are full of references to the “Antichrist.”

Notice some things John says about the “antichrist.” First, there are “many antichrists,” not just one. It is very important to note that the HOLY SPIRIT, the ultimate author of John’s writings, does not limit “antichrist” to just one being. Plus, they were already in the world in John’s day. Is the “future fuehrer” that old?

But who are “they,” John? Anyone “that denieth the Father and the Son,” (I John 2:22), “every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (I John 4:3), “who[ever] confess[es] not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (II John 7). John clearly, to his readers, identifies who these “antichrists” were. But for us to understand exactly about whom John is writing, we need some knowledge of the historical situation in the church in the late first century, when the beloved apostle was writing. Let me briefly overview the historical background behind John’s letters.

By 80 A.D., the Jewish people, as a whole, had rejected Christianity, and there were very few Jewish converts. Most of the converts to Christianity now were Gentiles. The separation between church and synagogue was complete; the controversy over justification by faith vs. the law of Moses had largely died out, and the influx of Gentiles into the church, with their heritage of philosophical thought, was beginning to affect doctrinal teaching., Thus, the later books written in the New Testament deal with this problem, after the earlier writings (especially Paul’s) had argued so vociferously about the law of Moses and its relationship to Christianity. The book of Hebrews was likely the final breaking point, along with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

These new Greek Gentile converts were interested in the person of Christ—who was He? If He was God, how could He die? And if He died, how could He be God? And thus there was a tremendous debate over the nature of Christ, which occupied the church, literally, for the next several centuries (and still exists, to a point), and gave us such interesting things as Arianism, Monothelitism, and Monophysitism. Most of the important early church “councils” were called to try and settle this problem--Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, and Chalcedon in 451, the final of which settled the issue—truthfully. The particular problem that the apostle John was dealing with was an early form of Gnosticism. What was Gnosticism?

Briefly, Gnosticism was built on the premise that the spirit is good and matter is evil. Salvation consists of escape from the realm of matter into the realm of spirit; the means of escape were numerous, but most needful was knowledge, by which man can rise above the earth-bound chains of matter into the heavenly apprehension of truth. This knowledge (Greek, gnosis) could be attained only by those who were initiated into the inner secrets of the group—sort of like a modern cult. Since they believed that matter (including the human flesh) was evil, some Gnostics were extreme ascetics, some extreme libertines. Both believed that the “body” was evil. Now, since matter, including the body, was evil, how could the infinite, pure spirit called God have anything to do with a material body? Gnostics, therefore, had two basic views about Christ. One, He was not really human, but only apparently so, or two, the Christ-spirit entered Jesus’ body at baptism and left Him before He died. But “God” never could have possibly “become flesh.”

The apostle John is obviously combating these ideas in his writings, especially the first one, i.e., that Jesus was not really human. In John 1:14, he plainly stated “the word became flesh and dwelt among men.” In I John 1:1, he immediately contradicted the Gnostic notion: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life”—we saw Him, we heard Him, looked upon Him, we touched Him. He who denied and “confess[ed] not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh…is a deceiver and an antichrist” (II John 7). And there were “many” of them in John’s day and the coming centuries (I John 2:18). John’s strictures against “knowledge” (the Gnostic form) and their lack of love for the brethren (because of the Gnostics’ belief in their superior knowledge) are found frequently in his letters. The full development of Gnosticism was not until the 2nd century, so John was probably fighting a precursor, Docetism, which argued that Jesus only “seemed” to come in the flesh. But be that as it may, the Bible is very clear who these “antichrists” were: Gnostic or pre-Gnostic heretics who denied the true nature of the Lord Jesus. Gnosticism is not with us anymore, at least in its early forms, thus these “antichrists” do not exist today. The idea that the “Antichrist” is some future dictator or tyrant simply is not supported by the Biblical evidence. It is important, yea, essential, that we have some knowledge of ancient history and the setting in which Biblical books were written. Otherwise, we also could be swept into the errors of premillennialism and other false notions.

Let us be careful in our handling of the Biblical text that we speak only as it speaks and not be misled by claims that have no basis in Biblical truth or historical reality.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

America and the Conversion of Nineveh

Christian people are mourning, and rightly so, the moral degeneration in American society today. Our country is run (mis-run) by a Congress that doesn’t encourage Christian charity, but rather rewards sloth and punishes self-reliance and hard work. One of the major leaders of the House of Representatives is an open homosexual, and some states are agitating to let them “marry.” Not many months ago, a famous Senator, a blatant adulterer and moral miscreant, passed on to his eternal reward and yet was eulogized as one of the greatest statesmen of our time. Our President from 1993-2001 was caught in a vile sexual scandal—and was defended almost unanimously by the Democratic party and suffered no consequences except maybe some embarrassment. He hasn’t gone into hiding yet. And these examples are only from our supposed “leaders,” those who should be setting an example of moral rectitude and virtue for our people, and especially our youth. Hollywood, of course, spews out virtually nothing but putrid, filthy, immoral rot, pouring it daily into the minds of amenable, simple-minded Americans. Is it any wonder that drugs, sex, alcohol, homosexuality, feminism, divorce, covetousness, greed, laziness, and a whole host of sins plague a once-great nation, a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles? (And, concomitantly, is it any wonder why Muslims in the Middle East are fighting so hard to keep American influence out of their region of the world?)

But America isn’t the only country/empire in history that has suffered from moral decay and putrefaction. Indeed, tragically, such is the rule, not the exception. Take ancient Assyria, for example. Emperor Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-626) had no qualms about doing to his enemies what Barack Obama would love to do to the “tea party” people:

“The severed head of the Elamite king was brought to Ashurbanipal as he feasted with his queen in the palace garden; he had the head raised on a pole in the midst of his guests, and the royal revel went on; later the head was fixed over the gate of Nineveh [the capital], and slowly rotted away. The Elamite general, Dananu, was flayed alive, and them was bled like a lamb; his brother had his throat cut, and his body was divided into pieces, which were distributed over the country as souvenirs” (Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, p. 269).

Prisoners of war were nearly always dispatched after a battle; feeding them was too expensive and guarding them during a long campaign was dangerous and a nuisance. So their heads were beaten in with clubs or cut off with swords; scribes stood by to count the number of prisoners taken and killed by each soldier and booty was apportioned accordingly. The nobles among the captives came in for special treatment, however: their ears, noses, hands, and feet were sliced off, or they were thrown from high towers, or their children were beheaded, or flayed alive, or roasted over a slow fire. Ashurbanipal boasted, “I burned 3,000 captives with fire. I left not a single one among them alive to serve as hostage…These warriors who had sinned against…me…I [tore[ out their tongues…their lacerated members have I given unto the dogs, the swine, the wolves…” Well, dogs, swine, and wolves have to eat, too, I suppose. Interestingly, abortion was a capital crime in Assyria, but for practical reasons, not spiritual. Warrior societies need lots of sons so killing babies was discouraged. Most of the emperors died violent deaths, killed either by their own offspring or some ambitious general who could raise an army behind him. As Durant wrote, “The nations of the Near East preferred violent uprisings to corrupt elections, and their form of recall was assassination” (ibid, p. 273). Religion did nothing to mollify this—or perhaps it did.

At least in one case it did. The book of Jonah tells the fascinating story of God sending the prophet to preach to Nineveh—“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Most of us know that Jonah was reluctant to go, but the Lord finally persuaded him to do so by forcing him to spend three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish (read Jonah chapters 1 and 2). In chapter 3, the Lord again commands Jonah to “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee” (Jonah 3:2). This time Jonah obeyed. The message was “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (v. 4). Now, Jonah was preaching in the late 9th or early 8th century B.C. (800s-700s; note the date of Ashurbanipal’s reign, given above). His preaching was successful. The prophet’s message came to the king, who clothed himself in sackcloth (a sign of repentance) and commanded all his subjects to do the same, and also to “cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not” (Jonah 3:8-9). And sure enough, when “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (v. 10). This was one of the most successful preaching missions in history, because Nineveh had a population of at least 120,000 (Jonah 4:11)—huge for ancient times. What a great story.

And an encouraging one. We don’t know the circumstances behind Jonah’s preaching; in other words, what God had done to prepare the people of Nineveh for repentance. Something was going on that had gotten the king and citizens of that city ready to receive God’s message of doom—and salvation. The groundwork had been laid before Jonah had arrived—the Lord saw to that. His providence had been at work; the people of Nineveh were disposed to reformation; the preacher was sent; a wonderful salvation was effected. A wicked, wicked city had turned to Jehovah.

Can it happen in America today?

Why not?

As noted in the first paragraph, we have an exceedingly ungodly nation today, though there are, of course, many good, decent people who are aggrieved by the debauchery that is so rampant and open. But who knows what the Lord is doing behind the scenes, in His providence? Is He preparing America for a Ninevite conversion? We can hope and pray that He is. And we can—we must—continue to proclaim His word, a message akin to that which Jonah delivered in Nineveh: “soon America will be overthrown.” And perhaps the country will turn from its wicked ways and return to the Lord Jehovah.

It happened once—a great, wicked empire humbling itself before God. Who can tell whether it may happen again? Let’s keep our faith in God, not in ourselves, and we may see the salvation of our beloved country yet.