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Prof helps Baptists grapple with end-times questions

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP)–As the calendar turns to the new millennium, many Southern Baptists will be studying 1 and 2 Thessalonians in the New Testament as part of the annual Winter Bible Study emphasis in January.
Michael Martin, associate dean and professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Mill Valley, Calif., and author of the study, says these epistles by the Apostle Paul contain much material related to the return of the Lord, but they don’t provide a chronology of end-time events. Instead, they list practical ways to live as a Christian in light of the certainty of the Lord’s return.
“Paul did not design his comments to satisfy our curiosity about the end times,” says Martin, who wrote the New American Commentary on the two books in 1995. “He wrote to affirm Christian hope and provide assurance about the future to strengthen believers living in the present. His intent in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, for instance, was to say that death is not the end for the believer and we are assured of resurrection and reunion with all believers and with the Lord.”
The Southern Baptist Convention has never previously done a Winter (formerly January) Bible Study on these two books or on Revelation. Martin says he thinks this may be because of the diverse views Southern Baptists have about Jesus’ return and the details of it. But with society thinking about the end times at the turn of 2000 A.D., he says, the time was right to look at the three passages that are the most controversial: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12.
“Whatever scheme you adopt, the Lord will return, judge and punish the evil and reward the righteous,” Martin says. “I am convinced that a person does not have to settle all the details of the chronology to apply the principles behind eschatology to today.”
Martin also looked at the popular notion that these passages hold more meaning as the millennium approaches. “The basic truth is that the calendar we work with is neither sacred nor inspired,” he says. “Our modified Gregorian calendar is a human creation based on an earlier calendar devised by a monk named Dionysius in the mid-fourth century. This calendar made the birth of Christ the pivotal point of history, so everything before is ‘B.C.’ and after is ‘A.D.’“
However, subsequent historians found Dionysius off by five to six years in his measurements. “According to the calendar we have, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.,” he says. “Jesus was born at least a couple of years before Herod died. Thus, on our modern calendar, Jesus was born around 6 or 7 B.C. Dionysius also complicated the figuring of the millennium by not including a year ‘0’ as well.”
Because of this, we are most likely in the third millennium after the birth of Christ. “Therefore, since Christ did not come at the turn of the millennium, we have no reason to expect that he should return just because our calendars are changing from 1999 to 2000,” he says.
Therefore, the only thing that may happen is some computer problems. “A student in one of my classes raised the question about ‘Y2K,’ the ‘millennium bug,’ and what that has to do with the Lord’s return,” Martin recounts. “My answer is ‘nothing.’ Y2K is a computer glitch that came from individuals who wrote computer programs and saved space in them by using two digits — as in ‘99’ — for the year instead of four — as in ‘1999’. The problem arose because computers that use such software can’t tell the difference between 1899, 1999 and 2099. It has nothing to do with the return of the Lord.”
In fact, any prediction of when Jesus will return runs afoul of his own words, Martin says.
“In Acts 1:6-8, Jesus said his time to come back is not for us to know, but we’re supposed to be witnesses in the meantime,” Martin says. “Instead of encouraging an impromptu eschatology discussion, Jesus turned the meeting into an evangelism conference.”
Martin says other passages in 1 and 2 Thessalonians focus on church discipline, discipleship, sanctification and other matters.
Winter Bible Studies, put out annually by LifeWay Christian Resources, focus on one or more books of the Bible and offer comprehensive studies and ways to apply the ideas in them to a believer’s life.

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