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 (2).
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 Ancien 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 (3).
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] (1).
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 (4).
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" (5). 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" (6). 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 (7).
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 (8).
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 (9).
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 (10)!
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 (11)
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 (12).
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" (13)?
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 (14).
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?
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.
Therefore, the general decline in watchfulness is another sign that the end is drawing near.