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 Pentecostalists 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.
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.
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.
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 backslapper 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. The danger in this teaching was discussed in the last lesson.
- They deny that Christ's coming will be preceded by discernible signs. Our first lesson on prophecy shows that this denial is unscriptural.
- Rather than accept that we have recently come to the Last Days, they equate the Last Days to the whole Church Age. A coming series of lessons will rigorously establish that the Last Days are equivalent to modern times.
- 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.