by Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver [source]
The End Times: The Orthodox Christian Perspective September 2003
For the Orthodox Church, the End Times portending the end of this age began with the preaching of the First Forerunner, John the Baptist, who cried out to the people, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2).” The Lord Jesus Christ took up the same message when He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:17) after the beheading of John the Baptist. Throughout His public ministry Christ constantly preached of the coming Kingdom.
After His death on the Cross and His glorious resurrection, the message of the coming Kingdom was the foundational message of the new life in Christ. Historically, it blossomed forth on the great Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit established the Church of Christ here on earth.
Much like a farmer who first prepares the land for planting by plowing it, then seeding it, and afterwards watering and weeding the plants for a good harvest, God in the same way prepared His people according to the Old Testament record to become heirs of His coming Kingdom through the Church. The Day of Pentecost was the beginning of the human harvest for the Kingdom. It is an obvious fact that the preparation of the land, the planting, and the growth takes much longer timewise than the time for the harvest. In other words, harvest time is very brief compared to the time it takes for planting, growth, and maturity.
As in the Old Testament record the feast of Pentecost was the time of the harvest, so, in the New Testament period the time of harvesting people for God’s Kingdom has been taking place for about two thousand years. By the signs happening around us, it appears that we are nearing the very end of this final day of life on earth.
Even before the Day of Pentecost, the people who had received Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world believed that He was to return shortly after His ascension forty days after His resurrection. This came about because of the Lord’s words to Peter about John the beloved, as the three were walking together after Christ’s resurrection. The Lord said to Peter, “If it is My will that he (John) remain until I come, what is that to you (John 21:22)?” Saint John consequently writes in his gospel, “The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him (Peter) that he was not to die, but ‘If it is My will that he remain until I come, what is that to you (John 21:23)?’”
As is known, forty days after His glorious resurrection the Lord ascended into the heavens. At that astounding event two men in white robes who obviously were angels said to the Apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus Who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw Him go up into heaven (Acts 1:11).”
On the basis of these events, the general belief was that the return of the Lord Jesus Christ was going to take place in the lifetime of many who were eyewitnesses to these things. It is apparent that Paul the Apostle also believed in the imminent return of Christ; and he preached this wherever he went. He ends his first epistle to the Greeks of Corinth with the Aramaic word, “Maranatha (1 Corinthians 16:22).” The word appears to have become a byword of Aramaic-speaking believers and others declaring that Jesus was to return soon. Translated it states, “Lord, come.”
Through the presiding power of the Holy Spirit the Church became fully established from Her beginning with the total deposit of the truth in Her teachings. One prime example of this is found in the eleventh chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he describes the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The Corinthians were already practicing the Eucharistic supper even before Saint Paul had sent his first epistle to them. Although he was not one of the twelve disciples, nor was he present at that mystical supper, he records the words of Institution of the mystical supper which Orthodoxy today continues to use in each Divine Liturgy. He even goes further and explains that one must be prepared with deep reverence to receive the holy gifts, otherwise they could prove to be harmful to the recipient, resulting in sickness and even death. The Church has always declared that the Divine Liturgy is not merely a memorial service, but the bread and the wine are the very Body and Blood of Christ, now known as the unbloody Sacrifice.
The conscience of the Church accepted that, even though the Lord had ascended into the heavens, He was always present in the Divine Liturgy and consequently in the life of the Church. His words, furthermore, are true when He says, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age (Matthew 28:20).” This statement of the Lord for the Orthodox is actualized when one receives His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.
The Holy Eucharist is Christ’s very presence within the body and soul of the recipient. This relates directly to the Second Coming.
For when one receives Holy Communion, that person does so with the expectation of the promised return of Christ as the Bridegroom coming to receive the Church, His Bride. Saint Paul clearly states, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Corinthians 11:26).” The Church, therefore, continues to have as a foundational teaching the glorious return of Jesus Christ in the fullness of His glory, as the two angels had declared on the day of His ascension.
The belief of the imminent return of our Lord within the lifetime of many believers in the Apostolic and the post-Apostolic age established a particular lifestyle for those believers, especially for those who were contemplating marriage. In fact, many did not marry. They were only betrothed to each other, living out their lives in a platonic manner.
The reason for this was that they were expecting the soon return of the Lord, and they remembered His words that the days before His return would be a time of great disasters. They recalled that those with children, and especially with nursing infants, would suffer greatly. Many therefore remained in the state of betrothal all their lives. The Orthodox Church continues to preserve this reality when we see that even today the betrothal service with the use of rings is a separate service from the service of holy matrimony. Today, however, both services are combined into one continuous service.
The wisdom of the Holy Spirit Who presides over the Church, from Pentecost until the Lord returns, amplified the lifestyle of the people with the worship services of the Church on a yearly cycle. Other than the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, the Church celebrated and celebrates the life of Christ in seasonal commemorations and celebrations, the most important of which is the period of Great Lent. For a period of almost seventy days, from three weeks before the forty-day Lenten period begins, and including all of Holy week, the word Nymphios referring to Christ as the Bridegroom is intermittently used.
We know that, when the Lord refers to Himself as the Bridegroom, He is talking about His Second Coming, the Parousia.
From the very beginning, the Church reminded the people of Christ’s words when, on one of several occasions, the Lord was asked why His disciples did not observe the prescribed fasting periods of the Jewish faith, Christ responded, “Can you make wedding guests fast, when the bridegroom is with them (Luke 5:34)?” And He went on to say, “The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days (Luke 5:35).” This is very significant for Orthodox Christians. For it is here that Christ makes a direct connection, a direct relationship between the discipline of fasting and His promised return.
Fasting, therefore, is not only for one’s self-discipline and preparation for receiving higher spiritual benefits, it is also basically a preparation for the return of Christ, as the five wise virgins prepared themselves in the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
It is known that fasting as well as other disciplines and rituals were carried over from the Jewish tradition into the Christian experience since the first Christians were Jews. However, with the establishment of the new covenant and the new priesthood after the Order of Melchizedek, the Old Testament observances took on their new prophetic fulfillment, with the people of the Church becoming the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
The most important period of fasting is Great and Holy Week which begins on the evening of Palm Sunday. From time immemorial the Orthodox Church reserves the first three nights of Holy Week to remind the faithful of the Second Coming of Christ. These are called the Bridegroom services. In these prayer services there are several hymns and canticles which forecast the Second Coming. What is probably the most important hymn, the hymn of the Bridegroom, announces:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the midst of night,
And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching;
But unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless.
Beware, therefore, my soul, that you do not be overcome by sleep,
So that you may not be given up to death,
And be shut out from the Kingdom.
But arouse yourself, crying out,
Holy, holy, holy, are You our God,
Through the Theotokos, save us.
With this ancient tradition in place and part of the annual cycle, the belief in the Second Coming is not usually a topic of public discussion with the Orthodox, other than an occasion such as in this meditation, in order to reflect on present-day conditions in the world. It is never used as a fear tactic which would harm one’s free will.
We believe as Orthodox Christians that we are, in fact, living in the end times. But we also quote the Lord when He says, “Not yet (Matthew 24:6).” Many prophecies must be fulfilled before the very end. For instance, in the Book of Daniel we read in the final chapter that knowledge will greatly increase. We are already witnessing internet and website systems, truly an information explosion with instantaneous communications systems all over the globe. There are now literally billions of voice waves crisscrossing this planet together with pictorial depictions. Daniel speaks of this as one of the final events before the end.
The terrorist attacks which took place at the close of the Second Millennium, which escalated on September 11, 2001, are events that thus far have been unknown. For the Orthodox Church, September 2001 was the first month of the first year of the Third Millennium according to the ecclesiastical calendar. We consider this diabolical attack on our land the beginning of a new world condition. On the other side of the spectrum we see the great industrial powers of the world unifying and creating giant industrial, technological, and scientific complexes which are being controlled by fewer and fewer people. An oligarchy of power and control has begun. Technology has already made phenomenal advances wherein microchips are not only placed in inanimate objects, such as vehicles, for their immediate known location, but also in the bodies of children for fear of their being kidnapped or disappearing somehow.
Many Orthodox Christians, especially monks with great insight, see these achievements as the preparation for a one-government world, ultimately with a one world ruler. This bespeaks of the coming anti-Christ. Before this occurs Saint John the Theologian speaks of many anti-Christs, saying, “It is the last hour (1 John 2:18).”
Orthodoxy believes that many anti-Christs have already arrived and some have already gone.
Although there are differing opinions by those who attempt to discern the signs of the times, one thing is certain and that is that the anti-Christ shall be embraced by many as the Messiah. His reign shall last seven long years according to the prophecies.
Obviously, the time is not now for the anti-Christ to make his appearance. There is too much turmoil in the world and too many wars being fought, although this is also one of the signs of the final days. The world powers will ultimately bring about peace throughout the world. The Apostle Paul gives a prophetic insight to us. He writes to the people of Thessaloniki in his first epistle, “When people say ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape (Thessalonians 5:3).” We know from the Lord’s own words in Saint Matthew’s gospel that
“there will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be (Matthew 24:21).”
Referring to the ones who will be saved He continues to say that
“if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened (Matthew 24:22).”
Basically all the gospel readings, such as these which speak of the end of the age, are read in the various services of Great Lent and Holy Week in the Orthodox churches, as a preparation for the end.
Before the triumphant return of Christ, the Church teaches that the two faithful witnesses, who have not yet died and who are mentioned in the Book of Revelation, will return to the earth to announce that Christ is returning and to preach repentance one last time. They are Enoch and Elias, also called Elijah. In the Orthodox Church every saint who is commemorated and who is well-known has a feastday which includes the services of Vespers, Orthros, and the Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Church has always considered the feastday of the Prophet Elias as a major feastday which is celebrated every year on July 20. His troparion or anthem proclaims:
The bodily angel, the prophets’ foundation, the Second Forerunner of the Parousia of Christ, Elias, the glorified; he gave to Elisha from above the grace to do away with sicknesses and to cleanse lepers. And they who honor him, to them he gives healing.
One hymn states: “Sitting on a fiery vehicle you were lifted up and were transported to an illumined country, O Elias.” Another hymn speaking of Elias says, “On the day of judgment, O wise one, come to our aid.” Still another says, “… you will not see death until you announce the end of all things.” According to the Orthodox Church the Prophet Elias has not yet died; neither has Enoch. Their work on earth has not yet finished.
It is important to note that the Church identifies the Prophet Elias as the Second Forerunner of Christ even though he lived eight hundred years before Christ and John the Baptist, the First Forerunner. It is obvious why. Many cosmic events will occur before the two holy witnesses return. There will be upheavals and phenomenal, catastrophic events in the heavens and on earth. Many catastrophes on earth will be by the hand of man. The two witnesses will preach repentance and the coming of Christ, but they will not be believed. As Herod had 14,000 infants slaughtered after Jesus was born, so the two holy witnesses will be killed just before Jesus returns. However, after three days they will come back to life (Revelation 11:3-12).
Then the Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church, will return in glory to claim His Bride, the people of the Church. It appears that, in comparison to the total world population, not many will be saved. The Church tells us that the Lord Himself, speaking of His return, poses the question, “When the Son of Man returns will He find the faith on the earth (Luke 18:8)?” Even so, for the sake of the elect the Lord will shorten those days so that His people will be saved (Mark 13:20).
The Church accepts that upon the return of Christ the general resurrection will take place. Saint Paul tells us,
“We who are alive who are left until the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ shall rise first; then those who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-18).”
With these words of Paul the Church teaches that all people who were ever born shall receive their resurrection bodies, including those who will not enter the Kingdom, since Christ states in John’s gospel that all who are in the tombs will come forth, they who have done good into the resurrection of life, and they who have done evil into the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29). At every funeral service of the Church this particular reading from First Thessalonians is read, again as a reminder of Christ’s return.
The earth shall then be transformed as Saint Peter says; for he speaks of the transformation of the present elements by fire (2 Peter 3:7) into new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:10). This transformation of the physical elements into their pure energy forms will bring about the fulfillment of God’s divine plan for all creation. Saint Jude in his epistle speaks of Enoch who saw these end time events. He writes that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied saying, “Behold, the Lord came with His holy myriads to execute judgment on all (Jude 1:14).”
The Church believes that, after the Lord’s return, all life and all nature will be renewed and will receive their eternal, pristine forms. This will be the new earth of which the Apostles preached and wrote. All creation will be changed from its perishable condition to the imperishable. We are now like raw material, as one of my professors in seminary taught. We will be transfigured into our pure energy bodies as the Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor.
Death will be put to death, as Holy Scripture teaches. Death will be no more, and every person who was ever born will live forever, either in the glorious presence of Christ, the eternal Sun of Righteousness, or forever away from the presence of Christ in the outer darkness.
Since God did not create death, which in essence is separation from Him, He will do away with this condition for those who desire to be with Him forever. His desire is for all people created in His image to become in His likeness through their own free will. Unfortunately, however, many by their free will are to exist away from Him in eternal darkness.
In the final chapter of the Book of Revelation, which was written by Saint John on the Island of Patmos, the Lord calls Himself “the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star (o Astir o lambros o proinon” – Revelation 22:16). In identifying Himself in this way Christ the Lord exposes the great deceiver, the former Lucifer, the mightiest, most beautiful, and most intellectual creature which God ever created. In the Septuagint Greek Scriptures he is called EOSFOROS. The meaning, both in Greek and in Latin, Lucifer, is he who brings the morning light or the daylight; in other words, he who is the carrier of the created light. As the great deceiver he beguiles people to believe that he is the source of light. Saint Paul brings this out when he writes to the Corinthians, saying that “…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).” The Church, however, has always reminded the faithful that Jesus Christ is the Uncreated Light, while Satan was the carrier of the created light, the star of the day.
Not only in their lifestyle are Orthodox Christians supposed to keep alive the Second Coming of the Lord, but especially in the Lord’s prayer, which they know from childhood, when they say “Thy Kingdom come,” and also in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed when they recite, “And He is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose Kingdom shall have no end.” And they end the confession of faith by stating, “I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
From all this we can readily see that the belief in the end times and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ is and has been the undercurrent of the faith, from the days of the Apostles to our present day, the belief which we describe as a basic teaching of the Orthodox Christian Church. It will continue to be Her basic message until the Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church, returns to claim Her as His Bride. Until then we live our lives as normally as we can, without having undue concern in interpreting the signs and the seasons. For as we understand, just as we know that spring time is arriving when we see the budding of plants and trees, so too we will know when the end is truly imminent and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory is near at hand.