Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sign of Times (part IV)

By Moonings


The Renewal of Prophetic Study

The prophetic Scriptures lay in neglect for many centuries until almost two hundred years ago, when a new interest in them arose among serious-minded believers. With this interest came a heightened sense that the coming of the Lord was drawing near. To revive the doctrine of the Second Coming, the Holy Spirit worked through world events, especially those signaling that the world was becoming ripe for the emergence of an evil world ruler

For more than a thousand years before the French Revolution, all nations of the Western world had professed allegiance to the Christian religion, acknowledging its supreme authority in all questions moral and metaphysical. But the rebels against the Ancient Regime in France set up tyrannies which, for the first time in many long centuries, married civil power to an anti-Christian world view. The new leaders tried to remake society along lines congenial to rationalistic philosophy and dared even "to change times and laws" (Dan. 7:25). But their political experiments bred cruelty and terror. To many believers, the vicious regimes created by the Revolution seemed like a foretaste of the bestial world government that would immediately precede the coming of Christ. In Napoleon, many believers saw a type of the Antichrist himself. One of the first prophetic truths established by the renewed study of prophecy was that the Antichrist would be an individual man

Excitement about the Second Coming first took hold in the new movement that came to be known as the Plymouth Brethren. J. N. Darby, one of its leaders, wrote in 1832,
I should tell you this country is much blessed, by the expectation of the Lord's coming becoming a wonderfully practical thing in it [that is, the country]

Soon, a sense of the Lord's imminent return spread to other evangelical Christians. Many formed a definite idea that they were living in the Last Days foretold by Peter and Paul (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). For example, the Earl of Shaftesbury, then Lord Ashley, wrote in 1838,
I am convinced that Providence has laid up in store many riches of "testimony" to the authenticity of the Bible, to be produced in these evil days of apostasy and unbelief that will afflict the earth in the latter times

Lord Shaftesbury, a friend equally of royalty and ragged urchins, was the most prominent evangelical of his day. In a long Parliamentary career, he led the crusade against child labor, inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, and a host of other evils. In his private life, he labored ceaselessly to promote the gospel and help the poor. Almost two hundred religious and philanthropic organizations sent delegations to his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and, according to his biographer, "with all of which Lord Shaftesbury was more or less directly connected". In 1885, the Duke of Argyll went so far as to say, "The social reforms of the last century have not been due mainly to the Liberal party. They have been due mainly to the influence, character, and perseverance of one man—Lord Shaftesbury". We dwell on Lord Shaftesbury's accomplishments so that we might use him as an example of mainstream evangelical thought. At the close of his life, he stated,
[The coming of Christ] has been, as far as I can remember, a subject to which I have always held tenaciously. Belief in it has been a moving principle in my life; for I see everything going on in the world subordinate to this one great event. It is not a popular doctrine . . . ; it is, as a rule, held only by the poor . . . . Things are better than they were, however. I remember the time when it was the rarest thing possible to hear the subject referred to. I know there are many difficulties connected with it, and that different views are held . . . . Of one thing I am satisfied; the great event is not far off.

What were the grounds for Lord Shaftesbury's confidence that the end was near? He felt that certain prophetic signs of the end had come to pass. One of these was apostasy in the church. (He lived at a time when higher criticism and evolutionary theory were turning many away from orthodox religion.) Another sign was the awakening desire of the Jews to return to their homeland. According to Lord Shaftesbury's biographer,

Lord Shaftesbury never had a shadow of doubt that the Jews were to return to their own land, that the Scriptures were to be literally fulfilled, and that the time was at hand . . . . His study of the prophetic Scriptures led him to associate the return of the Jews with the Second Advent of our Lord, and this was the hope that animated every other.

Multitudes throughout the Bible-believing church were of the same opinion. From certain signs of the times they too derived confidence that the Lord was about to return. So firmly did this belief take hold of the Christian mind that it entered the hymnal. Still today, the church sings, "But now we see signs of his coming" (from "He Is Coming Again," written in 1913 by Mabel Johnston Camp), "Signs of His coming multiply" (from "What If It Were Today?", written in 1912 by Lelia N. Morris), and "In the east the glow appearing—Christ is coming, coming soon" (from "In the Glow of Early Morning," written in 1890 by William Macomber).

Expectations Rising to a Peak
Although a product of the nineteenth century, prophetic study did not fade after the arrival of the twentieth, but increasingly preoccupied the body of Christ. During the next fifty years, a series of disasters—including two world wars, an influenza pandemic, and a global depression—seemed to confirm the imminence of the final hour. After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the interest in prophecy rose to such a pitch of enthusiasm that believers began to talk constantly about Christ's return. Seldom did a month go by at a Bible-believing church without at least one sermon dealing with prophecy. Future events were often discussed on Christian radio programs, in Christian magazines, and at summer Bible conferences.

Between 1920 and 1960, scarcely any Bible teacher of renown, at least in those circles where prophecy was taken literally and not spiritualized, refrained from stating dogmatically that we live in the Last Days, meaning the last days of the Church Age. My father's favorite Bible teacher was William L. Pettingill, a well-known pulpiteer and Bible conference speaker in the early decades of the century. He is chiefly remembered as one of the editors of the Scofield Reference Bible. Pettingill affirmed,

The Book of Daniel . . . is no longer sealed, for The Time of the End is here and the words of our Lord Jesus come to us with great force: "Let him that readeth understand." (Matt. 24:15) He was speaking here of the prophecy of Daniel; and this is the only Book which our Lord has specifically commanded His disciples to understand. May He help us to obey His Word!
The leading Bible school in the same era was Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Its Bible faculty included Philip R. Newell, author of many commentaries, and Kenneth S. Wuest, whose Word Studies from the Greek New Testament are still available today. Newell stated,
No Bible-believing, serious-minded Christian will deny that we are living in times which bear the telltale insignia of the "last days" so accurately foretold in all of the Bible

This was also the view of Wuest.
Thus, we have in these five books [2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude], a picture of the Church in the days in which we are living, a guide for the saints, acquainting them with the nature of the false teachers and their heretical doctrines, and a warning against both. In view of all the foregoing, a study of these books should prove most timely and salutary, since we are living in the very last days of the Church Age, and in the midst of the apostasy which these Books predict.

For eighteen years, from 1930 to 1948, the pastor of Moody Memorial Church in Chicago, at that time probably the largest Bible-preaching church in the world, was H. A. Ironside, author of many widely read commentaries. His interpretation of the Last Days joined the consensus of other Bible teachers. In commenting on Daniel's prophetic words, "Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased" (Dan. 12:4), he said,
Could anything more aptly set forth the chief characteristics of these last days? Men seem to have a perfect mania for traveling from place to place; and human inventions of all kinds are pressed into service to accelerate and make comfortable those who thus run to and fro. Coupled with this we have the ever-widening diffusion of the productions of the press, so that knowledge of all kinds is indeed increased. May we not see in these things one evidence that we have almost reached the special prophetic period denominated as the "Time of the End"?

In the 40s and 50s, one of the most popular Bible teachers on the radio was M. R. DeHaan, founder of the Radio Bible Class, which still exists. In his many writings, DeHaan was another strong advocate of the view that we are living in the Last Days.

Surely we are living in the latter days, and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . might well castigate God's people today. They are more occupied with the restoration of material things [a reference to reconstruction after World War 2) . . . than they are with the signs of the times, which indicates beyond a shadow of doubt to the spiritually enlightened mind that we are living in the very last days.

Waning Expectations
In the decades following the founding of Israel, expectations of the Lord's return continued to run high among believers across a wide spectrum of groups and theological positions. But since 1980, the interest in prophecy has sharply declined. In the next lesson, we will examine why believers have turned away from prophecy, and we will show that they have turned away not because they have come to a better understanding of Scripture, but for reasons that are insupportable.

Sadly, many pastors have filed away their sermons on prophecy, leaving a vacuum of good teaching that is being filled by quirky and unreliable teaching. In the Christian media, prophecy has become the province of charlatans, who use sensational claims to reach the viewer's pocketbook. One book recently on the shelves of many respectable Christian bookstores denies that the Bible teaches the bodily return of Christ.

When true doctrine has few spokesmen and error has many, the man in the pew becomes very confused, and he is now very confused about prophecy. Ask him the difference between a premillennialist and a pretribulationist, and he will struggle to find the right answer. Ask him to state his own position and defend it from the Scriptures, and he will be speechless. He may not firmly grasp any prophetic idea except that Christ is coming again.

Yet his belief in the Second Coming is not tied to any strong conviction that Christ will return soon. The sentiment he has often heard from pulpits and lecterns is that we cannot know whether Christ will come tomorrow or a thousand years from tomorrow. It is true, of course, that no one should try to predict the date of Christ's return. Yet, as we will show, there are many signs that His return is drawing near, very near. Anyone who ignores these signs places himself in dubious company—among the Pharisees and Sadducees whom Jesus rebuked when He said,
2 . . . When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
Matthew 16:2-3

The teaching that Christ may defer His coming until a time far in the future is doing grave harm to the church. It is undermining and destroying the hope that Christ will return in our lifetimes, and without that hope, the believer has little reason to watch and wait. He turns away from prophetic study and devotes himself to life as usual. Expectancy slips into apathy. As a result, he may no longer be prepared to meet Christ when He comes.

The fading interest in Christ's return does not mean that the possibility of His returning soon is fading also. Jesus warned,
Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
Matthew 24:44
Therefore, the general decline in watchfulness is another sign that the end is drawing near.


Legitimate Concerns about Prophetic Study
In the last lesson we showed that after peaking about fifty years ago, interest in Bible prophecy has in recent years sharply declined. The hope of Christ's imminent return still runs high among some Pentacostalists and fundamentalists. But among others it is fading rapidly. And among evangelicals it is nearly moribund. Why? Why has the average believer relaxed his watchfulness and put his expectations on hold? What has caused him to shift his gaze downward, so that instead of beholding the clouds where Christ will appear, he sees only the track before him, wending through mundane cares and pleasures to an earthly grave.

The reason for the new outlook is not hard to find. Some years ago, a group of Christian leaders arose who decided that an emphasis on prophecy is not a good way to build churches. Many of these leaders were honest men with legitimate concerns about the negative consequences that in the past had followed from giving prophecy too much attention. Taking prophecy out of the pulpit was an overreaction, however. We will outline these concerns and propose better remedies.

It may monopolize preaching. Many in the last generation of preachers went overboard on prophecy. Those who earned the disparaging label "prophecy preachers" talked about little else. The weekly sermons of one pastor I knew quoted the newspaper as much as the Bible. Like many others of his mentality, he tried to read prophetic significance into every news report. For some evangelists who toured local churches with their wall-sized charts of future events and their gory artistic renderings of scenes from the Book of Revelation, prophecy was a shtick, assuring popularity on the circuit of sacred vaudeville.

What is the right corrective for overattention to prophecy? The remedy for one extreme is not another. The right corrective is balance—not eliminating prophecy but restoring it to its proper place in the whole counsel of God. And its proper place is a large one, since fully one third of the Bible consists of prophecy.

It may distract people from the work of God. Back in the heyday of prophecy, there were Christians who devoted more time to prophetic study than to the ministries of the church. They were always reading the latest book using the Bible as a telescope into the future, or listening by tape or radio to their favorite preachers on prophecy, or going to prophecy conferences. Yet vigorous leadership on the matter of priorities can keep a congregation on track. Rather than dispensing with sermons on prophecy, a pastor should give them the right slant, recognizing that the purpose of prophecy is not to satisfy idle curiosity, but to provoke God's people to good works. Paul tells the impact that the knowledge of Christ's return should have on our lives.

11 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Titus 2:11-13

For the believer, the glorious appearing of Christ is a blessed hope, because when He comes to set up His kingdom, He will summarily put an end to the vile wickedness of the present age. Yet His coming in glory will be preceded by a secret coming some years earlier, when He will gather and judge His own servants. The prospect that we will soon give an account of ourselves to Christ should, as the passage states, motivate us to live soberly and righteously.

It may be divisive. Prophetic study has spawned many schools of interpretation, prone to fight each other with rancorous charges and countercharges of heresy. The Presbyterians who view the Bible through the lens of Covenant Theology see dispensationalists as quasi-apostate. Some fundamentalists have made pretribulationism a test of fellowship. But Bible prophecy is the Word of God. It has no private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20). The Holy Spirit who inspired it invested it with certain meanings, and these He can reveal to any earnest inquirer.

Disagreements always mean that somebody needs to investigate the question further. On prophecy, it is possible for the church to reach consensus, if only to decide that certain things are mysteries reserved for future clarification.

It may prompt attention-seekers to make irresponsible predictions. In years past, some of the most visible champions of the idea that Christ is coming soon made predictions that dramatically failed to come true, causing widespread disaffection with prophetic study. In the 1970s, the best-known writer on prophecy was Hal Lindsey, a former student at Dallas Theological Seminary. Although he retained that school's particular brand of pretribulationism, he went far beyond his teachers in correlating prophecy with current events. His many books, including The Late Great Planet Earth, were best-sellers even by secular standards.
Like some other popular expositors of prophecy, Lindsey believed that the Olivet Discourse allowed a close prediction of when Christ would return. He argued that the pivotal verses are these:

32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Matthew 24:32-34

Lindsey took the fig tree as a symbol of Israel, identified its rebudding with the founding of Israel in 1948, measured a generation as forty years, and deduced that the Second Coming would surely happen no later than 1988 (1). Since he believed that the rapture of the church would predate the Second Coming by seven years, he implied that the rapture would occur by at least 1981. But, of course, there was no rapture in 1981. Nor has it occurred in any year since 1981.

Still, in 1988, there was another flurry of interest in prophecy when an amateur Bible student with enough money to promote his views announced to the world that Christ would come by the Feast of Trumpets in that year. The worldly media were only too happy to publicize this quackery, knowing full well that after the prediction failed, Christians and Bible study would look foolish. And fail it did. Many people in the church had already decided that alarums of the rapture offered more hype than hope. But now, much of the Christian world settled into a skeptical disdain of many prophetic truths, including the truth that we live in the Last Days.

Looking at the disappointment and disillusionment bred by false predictions, many preachers today are reluctant to make any contemporary application of prophecy. Many even shy away from the whole subject of prophecy. Again, this is not the right corrective for past abuses. The corrective is not less attention to prophecy, but deeper attention, leading to correct interpretations that will not fail.

When Lindsey said that the rebudding of the fig tree signified rebirth of the nation Israel, responsible Bible teachers should have neutralized his influence by showing that his exegesis was faulty. The fig tree is surely Israel in some sense. But in what sense? Scripture also compares Israel to a vine and an olive tree. We will venture to say that each symbol seems to have distinct meaning, the olive tree standing for the spiritual seed of Abraham (Rom. 11:16-25) and the vine, not the fig tree, referring to Israel as a political entity (Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21; Ezek. 17:1-10; Mark 12:1-11).

What then does the fig tree represent? On the morning after His Triumphal Entry, as He was walking back into Jerusalem, Jesus went to a fig tree with the evident purpose of finding some fruit for breakfast. When he found none, He cursed the tree. The symbolism is obvious. On the day before, when He entered the Temple and presented Himself as the Messiah, the religious leaders rejected Him. The Temple was flourishing as a social institution but devoid of spiritual life. The next morning, He cursed a fig tree that was green but deficient of fruit (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21). Therefore, the fig tree must represent the formal religious system of Israel. The rebudding of the fig tree pictures the reinauguration of Old Testament sacrifices.

Among the political developments that Lindsey and others trumpeted as signs of the approaching end was the formation of the European Common Market, supposed to be a fulfillment of the ten toes seen in Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Dan. 2:40-44). In recent years, however, the Common Market has enlarged beyond ten nations, causing reasonable people to dismiss its prophetic significance. But Bible teachers should have refuted Lindsey's interpretation of Daniel 2 as soon as he offered it. They should have shown that, in the context of entire Bible teaching on prophecy, the ten toes must prefigure ten divisions of the whole world. In the days when the Antichrist, also known as the Beast, will receive power "over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations" (Rev. 13:7), his worldwide authority (Rev. 14:15) will be enforced by ten subrulers called the ten horns (Rev. 14:12). The ten horns will govern ten kingdoms (Rev. 14:17), no doubt the true antitype for the ten toes in the dream symbolism of Daniel.
We will later provide a much fuller examination of these questions.

Insincere Opposition

We live in the Last Days, when false teachers are crowding into the church and feeding people sermons of candy rather than meat. The man behind many a church door is an ear-scratcher and back-slapper and glad-hander rather than a soul-builder. An opportunist does not like prophecy unless he can package it in a form that will yield growth and profit. If he uses the media, sensational claims of prophecies just fulfilled or about to be fulfilled are a lucrative ploy. But if he is confined to a church ministry, such claims may backfire when they prove untrue. Even a cynical manipulator of crowds finds it difficult to keep his people pumped up to an excited anticipation of events that never happen. There is a limit to how far predictions can be revised without undermining the credibility of their source. (Yet there are people who will follow their beloved leader through any change in the party line, however outrageous; Hal Lindsey, for example, still has a large following.) Thus, a hypocritical church leader is disposed to downplay prophecy. He does not believe it himself, and increasingly his hearers do not believe it either, so he is preaching other things.

Pharisees and Sadducees have a keen dislike for the teaching that we live in the Last Days. The Bible plainly says that in the declining years of the church, evil birds will roost in its branches. Thus, for fear of being exposed, the evil birds who have arrived to spoil the church turn people away from understanding the perilous time in which they live. They suppress the truth of end-time corruption, lest anyone doubt that their own church or organization is a work of God. To silence questions about their astonishing success, some of the organizations spearheading apostasy are promoting the rosy idea that the church has come to a time of exciting blessing and growth.

New, Pragmatic Twists to Prophetic Doctrine

Whether from good motives or bad, most church leaders today have come to prophetic views that suit pragmatic objectives.
Although they preach that Christ's coming is imminent, they also say that His return might be delayed for a long time.

They deny that Christ's coming will be preceded by discernible signs. Our first lesson on prophecy shows that this denial is unscriptural.

They discourage speculation as to the possible relation of prophecy to present events. To justify this disconnection, they reject a traditional hermeneutic, which regards prophecy as literal prediction of events primarily within the experience of the church, and they adopt either of two alternatives. They back away from futurist interpretation by supposing that the prophets were speaking only to their own situation. Or they embrace ultradispensationalism, thus removing all prophetic fulfillments from our age and dumping them into the Tribulation. A refutation of ultradispensationalism will be offered later in these studies.

1 comment:

  1. It is urgent that everyone read "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" (don't be afraid of this title) which is found on Google. Lord bless. M.E.