I was getting my hair cut the other day by someone other than my wife, for a change. As a result I got exposed to Christian culture outside my own personal sociological safe room. I am ashamed to say how seldom this happens. Of course, by not “getting out more” I help other Christians form their own little bubbles of idiosyncratic belief and theological naivete.
But not this time. The barber learned, as he cut my hair, that I was a seminary graduate and had pastored in a number of places around the country. So, as he finished up shaving the back of my neck, he let loose with his camaraderie question: “Before I let you go, I have to ask you: Do you think the Lord is coming back soon!”
The sound of his voice alerted me this was, in his mind, a rhetorical question. We were supposed to share in the joy of the soon return of Jesus to earth.
I couldn’t come up with a way to evade his question, at least not in the half-second before hesitation on my part would get awkward. So I said it.
“No, I think we have at least another 100,000 years left.”
He expected not that.
But he should have. The only thing shocking about my claim is that I was giving such a low-ball number. The absolute minimum estimate should be 120,000 years from the time the Ten Commandments were given on Mount Sinai. There God wrote with his own finger.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20).
Many English translations mute this because they leave out the second “generations.” It is true the word does not appear in the text after “thousands.” But it does not appear after “the third and the fourth” either. The reader has to read the implication. Third and fourth generation makes sense. But it makes no sense to then change the comparison to something else. God is promising to cut off wicked generations relatively quickly and bless the righteous for thousands of generation. The suffix is plural, not dual, so three generations is the absolute minimum here. A generation is forty years so:
40 x 3 x 1000 = 120,000
This idea is repeated elsewhere:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face (Deuternomy 7.9, 10).
Here we see the passage includes the word, “generations.” It only mentions one thousand of them, but it too contrasts this time span with the relatively quick destruction of the wicked.
So why do we expect the wicked to flourish and the number of generations of the righteous to remain small?
In fact, it is really strained to read the promise of faithfulness to “thousands” of generations as the minimal conceivable number of three. Why not eight thousands? Or twenty-four? Or more? It is possible that, just as God owns the cattle on more than a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), so he will actually be faithful to many more generations of believers than merely thousands.
According to Paul, now that Jesus has come, there is to be an explosion of grace and salvation relative to the past. As he writes in Romans 5:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So when we read in Esther 8 about a world-wide vindication of God’s people resulting in massive proselytization “from India to Ethiopia,” we should realize that that was rather minimal compared to what is to happen now that Jesus has come and died and risen again. God says he is faithful to thousands of generations, which leaves us with 115 thousand years left.
So God says to expect thousands of generations, and we’ve spent a few generations claiming that we are the last one. Paul writes that life through Jesus is more powerful than sin and death through Adam, and we preach that sin is universal and redemption only for a minority in history.
How does that honor what God says?
With this time frame in mind, I will leave you some of Jesus’ last words on earth:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
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