Only Here a Little While

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This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20:1-2

I hesitate to tell you this, because when I do, you are liable to snap the book shut and find something else to read. But I have given this a lot of thought and study, and I have come to the conclusion that, sooner or later, one way or another, we are all going to die. See what I mean? No one wants to hear that. But if you are still reading, stay with me a little further and see what I am driving at.

I had my 72nd birthday not long ago and like most people my age, I have some minor health problems, some of which could become more serious with the passage of time. So I take my vitamins and supplements in hope of getting rid of some of the creaks and groans, and I follow my doctor’s instructions on therapy. I read articles and books on health related issues, and a range of stuff comes in the mail that promises to cure nearly every ailment known to man. And every once in a while, I stop and laugh at myself, because I know I am looking for the fountain of youth. Maybe, I think, I can stop this process, maybe I can feel the way I did when I was 40. Now I know I am fighting a losing battle. The battle is worth fighting, because I have a lot of work I want to do and I would like to keep the old body going as long as it will go. But I know, and you know, that in the end, we all die.

Our old friend Paul faced up to the same question for different reasons. He faced death in more ways than we ever will. His problems were not altogether health-related. He had some people who wanted to kill him. From time to time, he got a little mellow when he wrote to his friends, and talked about his mortality. He had been through some hard going by the time he wrote his second letter to the Corinthians. “Therefore, since we have this ministry,” he said, “as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).

It was not that he didn’t have good reason to give up. The story he tells elsewhere of what he had to go through for the sake of the Gospel is almost heartbreaking. But it was the ministry that drove him on and wouldn’t allow him to quit. He wrote further:

But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (v. 2).

Paul’s language, coming as it does from the Greek, is somewhat cumbersome, but the point comes through. There were no marketing strategies in Paul’s ministries. There was no manipulation of the audience, no spin. The expression “by manifestation of the truth,” means that Paul tells it like it is. It is an open statement. No craftiness, no tricks. Paul’s approach was to speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may. In doing so, he placed himself before each man’s sense of right and wrong, his conscience. In a way, he originated the idea of “we report, you decide.”

But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (vv. 3-7).

For just a moment, Paul becomes something of a poet, something he doesn’t often do. He draws an image of an earthenware crock filled with diamonds, pearls and rubies. He and his companions are the earthenware crocks, something easily broken, cheaply replaced, and not particularly attractive. The treasure is the Gospel.

We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (vv. 8-11).

It seems counterintuitive, but Paul is saying that you will only come to appreciate the value of life when you come face to face with your own mortality, when you understand that you are going to die. Only then, does the life held out to us by God really mean very much.

So then death is working in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you (vv. 12-14).

Paul vividly sees that this earthly life, this perishable existence is not the end. It is a means to an end, a vehicle that carries Paul forward to a goal. And for Paul, everything he went through was, as with Christ, for the sake of his people.

For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day (vv. 15- 16).

This is what I started out to say. The outward man will, indeed must, perish. It isn’t possible to take flesh and blood into the Kingdom of God.i So when you look in the mirror and see the wrinkles begin to show, and the flesh begin to sag, you have to face up to it. You can’t take this body with you into the Kingdom of God. This is one of the most fundamental of Christian teachings and it ties directly into the thread we have been following. You and I are going to die, and unless we “put on immortality,” to use Paul’s words, it’s all over.

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (vv. 17-18).

The body with which you and I walk through this life, is temporary. I have brought you all the way through this chapter to help us get used to this idea because it is fundamental to the Feast of Tabernacles. Paul will make that connection next.

“For we know,” he said, “that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Now it is plain that Paul, in speaking of his earthly “tabernacle” is talking about the physical body. He has already said that he bears in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus. And whether we like it or not, we bear about in our bodies every day, the dying, the decay, the rot. He realizes that the physical human body was never intended to be permanent. It is temporary – a tabernacle. We sometimes have to remind one another, “We are just not going to get out of this alive.” The body is a tabernacle, a tent.

For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent [this tabernacle] groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life (2 Corinthians 5:2-4).

I think I understand what Paul is saying. Now that I am getting a little older, I catch myself groaning more often. There is a grunt when I bend over to tie my shoes. A groan when I get out of a chair where I have sat too long. The human body is like an old tent you keep using year after year on your vacation. The poles get bent, it starts to leak, it has holes in it, and it never kept you very warm anyway. Then, one hunting season, you find that your ridge pole is missing, so you substitute a rope between two trees. It’s not very pretty but it keeps off the night air. In some ways, our bodies are a lot like that old tent, and it isn’t hard to imagine why Paul might have selected a tent as a metaphor for the human body.

But all his life up to this day, he had observed the Feast of Tabernacles, so the simile of comparing his body to a tabernacle or tent followed easily. He had probably pitched the same tent year after year. His trade was making tents, so the idea came naturally to mind.

You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 23:42-43).

It may be from this that many make the assumption that the Feast of Tabernacles was merely a Jewish feast. As it happens, that is a mistaken assumption. It is a strange one for Christians to make when you look back over all the old hymns we sing. We compare ourselves to Israel, wandering in the wilderness, looking for a homeland, wanting to cross Jordan into the promised land. All the imagery is of a church that is “the Israel of God.” ii And all that time of living in tabernacles is compared to this life, here and now, the temporary nature of this life. Crossing over Jordan is crossing over into the Kingdom of God, which flesh and blood cannot inherit.

Even in the Old Testament, one can see that it is a mistake to think that the Feast of Tabernacles is only for Israelites. In the last chapter, we read what the Prophet Zechariah saw happening after the return of Christ. He saw all the kingdoms of the world, even Egypt, coming up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles, and suffering sanctions if they didn’t come. It was mandatory.iii

This is an end time prophecy, but it should be plain enough that the Egyptians don’t keep the Feast of Tabernacles with the same meaning as the children of Israel. They didn’t dwell in booths for 40 years in the wilderness. Israel did. Yet it is mandatory for Egypt to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. Is it possible that people have been too quick to dismiss the holidays of the Bible as being merely Jewish? After all, they are the appointed times of Jehovah.

The Tabernacle was a natural metaphor for Paul to use in his letter, because he was still observing this festival many years after his conversion. We learn this from incidental references, but they are illuminating. For example, Paul came to Ephesus on his way back to Jerusalem and went to the synagogue as was his long standing custom:

And he came to Ephesus, and left them there; but he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay a longer time with them, he did not consent, but took leave of them, saying, “I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing.” And he sailed from Ephesus (Acts 18:19-21).

Most commentators note that the feast in question was certainly the Feast of Tabernacles. Paul didn’t merely say he wanted to be there at the feast. He said he wanted to keep the feast in Jerusalem. The Feast of Tabernacles is not merely a Jewish holiday. The earliest Christians kept the feast at the same time as the Jews, though doubtless with a modified sense of meaning that translated over into Christian symbolism.

But what are those meanings? The idea of the temporary nature of life is the meaning of one of them. Camping out in the wilderness is another. That this world is not our home is yet another. The fact that we look for a city that is permanent becomes part of the meaning. The Feast of Tabernacles is a confession, a reminder, that we are strangers and pilgrims here below, that we don’t belong here, that we belong to a higher kingdom. We encounter all these things as we follow the thread year by year.

But there may be even more than that. We have already connected, in earlier chapters, the Feast of Trumpets to the return of Christ. That placed us in the book of Revelation among the prophecies of the last days.

Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God (Revelation 19:11-13).

There is no mistaking who this is. This is the returning Christ, at the head of all the armies of heaven. He comes this time to fight, and “He treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” He now carries the title: King of Kings and Lord of lords. Then comes the great battle with all the nations who have gathered to fight against Jerusalem – the battle that ensues, we call Armageddon. It is a grisly scene that the prophet sees. It is really “apocalyptic.”

But then the scene changes. Since the Feast of Tabernacles follows the Feast of Trumpets with the return of Christ, and the Day of Atonement with the Last Judgement, what would naturally follow in the course of events?

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; and he cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal on him, so that he should deceive the nations no more till the thousand years were finished. But after these things he must be released for a little while (Revelation 20:1-3).

This is that time that some people call “The Millennium.” If you read much about prophecy, you have probably heard people speak of premillennial, amillennial, or postmillennial approaches to the interpretation of these events. A millennium is simply a thousand years. During this thousand year epoch, Satan is bound. In Revelation, it appears that Christ returns before that thousand years begins. The work that has to be done starts with the binding of Satan, an event that some compare to the second goat of the ceremony on the Day of Atonement. That goat is not killed as a sacrifice, but is led away and left in the desert, alive.

And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection (vv. 4-5).

Since this follows the Feast of Trumpets and the return of Christ, and it follows the Day of Atonement when according to one belief, Satan is bound, it is only natural to think that the Feast of Tabernacles may picture the Millennium, the time when the Kingdom of God is established.

So every year in the autumn, thousands of people descend on Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles. Many who live in the city create little booths, or tabernacles on their roofs or balconies and actually sleep in them during the Feast. And you might be surprised to learn that a rather large number of Christian people travel to Jerusalem to observe the Feast of Tabernacles every year. As a percentage of Christianity, that number is small, but they must have come to see, somewhere along the way, what the Feast of Tabernacles means from a Christian perspective, or they wouldn’t be doing that.

I don’t think one has to go to Jerusalem to keep the Feast. Jews all around the world keep the Feast, even though they cannot go to Jerusalem. So do a surprising number of Christian folk. You can find some of them, if you make the effort.

Now there is a curious thing about the Feast of Tabernacles. It is said to be a seven day festival, and then there is an eighth day. No one knows for sure the chronology of the world from Adam to this day, but as it is presented to us in the Bible, it forms what appears to be a seven thousand year plan. We have just about finished six thousand years of human thrashing around trying to find our own way. The seventh thousand year period is the rule of Christ, and not only his rule, but that rule shared with those who have trusted him and served him in this life. It is these who come up in “the First Resurrection.”

Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years (v. 6).

Where? Well, right here on the earth, where there is work to be done. Do you recall what Jesus said about the meek? “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). It is odd that we think those who are blessed by God are going to heaven, when Jesus says they will inherit the planet. This is not to say that they will not eventually go to heaven, but apparently, not quite yet. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, is here. On the earth. Because it is here that Christ comes to rule, and where he rules is the Kingdom of Heaven.

But did you notice that sentence above: “The rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished”? The passage doesn’t say a word about a second resurrection, but in saying this and adding, “This is the first resurrection,” it certainly implies it. The First Resurrection is said to be all the dead in Christ. Then the rest of the dead who don’t live again until the thousand years are finished, must of necessity be the dead who are not “in Christ.” It would seem that there is a resurrection at the beginning of the thousand years, and a resurrection at the end of it.

“Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection,” the messenger said, “over such, the second death has no power.” This statement does not necessarily extend to those in the second resurrection.

Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them (vv. 7-9).

There are still people down here, this late, who are ready to fight with God. This is hard to understand. I’ll confess that quickly. How, at the end of a thousand years of Christ’s rule, could there still be people who could be deceived and who could turn on God? Yet there is a part of me that recognizes how true it is. That no matter how clear the evidence, some people still have an antipathy toward God which is almost impossible to explain. The final destruction of these people is almost like a cutting off of all the loose ends. And at this moment, Satan is finally disposed of. This is followed by one of the really great events in the plan of God.

i. “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).

ii. Galatians 6:16.

iii. See Zechariah 14:17 ff.

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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Image Credits: Joel Montes de Oca