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THEOLOGY

Prophecy by The Book: Chapter 1

By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
Theologian

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Chapter One

Introduction: The Return of Christ


This will be a brief study of biblical prophecy. How are we to read and understand the many prophecies in the Bible? This will not be a study on the possible function of a prophet in our time (there are many who claim to be prophets today), or on the gift of prophecy referred to in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 (as important as such a study might be), but on prophecies spoken in the Bible and how to deal with them. How do we judge prophecy by the Book?

This subject is particularly relevant today in light of frequent statements that many biblical prophecies are being fulfilled in our present world situation. If such is the case, we need not only to listen closely to what is being said, but also to go back to the Bible to weigh and evaluate these statements.

For example, as you are probably well aware, there was a man not long ago who claimed he had irrefutable proof that Christ would return in the fall of 1988. When this did not happen, he changed the date to September, 1989. Some 300,000 copies of his books were sold, and many people prepared for the event that never occurred. This is a recent example of biblical prophecy not being understood or truly heeded.

Christ Himself while on earth declared His own ignorance of the exact time of His return. "Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matt. 24:36). A few words later, Jesus added: "The Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (v. 44). Incidentally, the predictors of the time of Christ's return do not usually name the day and hour (although some have done so), but only the season; however, this hardly avoids running counter to Jesus' words. So be wary, dear friend, of those who claim to know too much. Jesus warned against those who "will say to you, 'Lo, there!' or 'Lo, here!' Do not...follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day" (Luke 17:23-24). Elsewhere Jesus calls such persons "false prophets" (Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22). He does indeed speak to the disciples' questions about the "sign" of his coming and "the close of the age" (Matt. 24:3) in the verses that follow; however, Jesus also makes it clear that His return will be unexpected. The main point in His further words is always to be on the alert: "Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt. 24:42; also 25:13).

The important matter on which we may all agree is that Christ will return. He who came in the flesh two thousand years ago will come again. The New Testament rings with this note of expectation. Paul speaks of "awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13); and Peter urges: "Set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13). We may even look forward to the judgment side, namely, His coming with "his mighty angels in flaming fire inflicting vengeance." For He likewise "comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed" (2 Thess. 1:7, 8, 10). Our united voice—whatever the school of prophetic interpretation—can only be "Marana tha"—"Our Lord, come!" (1 Cor. 16:22).

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Now to add a few more things about the attitude and activity of the believer in light of the return of Christ:

1. Eager waiting

A prominent attitude of Christian believers, according to the New Testament, is that of eager waiting. There is waiting to be sure, but the note of eagerness and anticipation belongs to the Christian hope. Paul writes to the Philippians: "Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (3:20 nasb). Spiritually we are already citizens of heaven where Christ now is, but we yearn to see Him bodily, face to face. Moreover when He comes, Christ "will change our lowly body to be like His glorious body" (v. 21). A marvelous prospect indeed!

In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of the church there as "not lacking any [spiritual] gift." Then he adds immediately, "awaiting eagerly the revelation ["coming" kjv] of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1:7 nasb). This suggests that the more the spiritual gifts are present and operating in a community of believers the more there is expectation of the Lord's return. Jesus Christ was so present in the gifts of the Spirit—e.g., in word of wisdom and word of knowledge, in gifts of healing and working of miracles, in prophecy and speaking in tongues—that the Corinthians could hardly wait for His full personal revelation. And so it continues to be: the spiritual presence of Christ through the gifts (and, of course, in many other ways), despite all its wonder, is but a foretaste of the revelation to come. Come, Lord Jesus!

One more Scripture passage, among several, on eager waiting is Hebrews 9:28—"Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who eagerly wait for him" (also nasb). This salvation to come no longer relates to initial salvation from sin but to the fullness of blessings in Christ that will be completed when He returns. This will surely include salvation from the wrath of God (Paul speaks in 1 Thess. 1:10 of Jesus as He "who delivers us from the wrath to come," a wrath to be poured out on a sinful and disobedient human race). But it will be even more a salvation from all that remains in our lives of sin and death into a perfect fulfillment when Christ returns. Surely our waiting now must be one of eager expectancy!

2. Loving Christ's appearing

Here is another beautiful New Testament touch: not only eager waiting but loving His appearing. Paul, toward the end of his life and ministry, writes Timothy about "the crown of righteousness" to be awarded not only to himself "but also to all who have loved his [Christ's] appearing" (2 Tim. 4:8, also nasb). To love Christ's appearing is the deep note of eager waiting.

Perhaps you have family members away in a far country. You not only eagerly await their return, but you also truly love their appearing and will greet them with embraces of joy and happiness. You love their appearing: how much more Christ our Lord and Savior at His return!

3. Exercising patience

Ah, yes, eager waiting and loving His appearing, but also exercising patience. James, the brother of Jesus, writes: "Be patient... brethren, until the coming of the Lord" (James 5:7). It is not always easy to await the return of the Lord; it may even seem like an endless delay. Indeed, from where we stand today it has been about two thousand years! But here Peter reminds us: "Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day"; moreover, the Lord's presumed delay is not a failure in His promise to return but His giving time that "all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:8-9). Our eager desire and love for the Lord's appearing should be tempered both by the realization that His timetable is much different from ours, and that the Lord Himself is giving more time for all people to repent. When He returns, the day of salvation is forever past, so let our yearning for His return be mixed now with compassion for the lost. Be patient, brethren!

4. Purifying ourselves

There is much stress in the New Testament about the importance of self-purification in awaiting Christ's return. Let us hear a word from John: "Abide in him [Christ], so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him ["away from Him"—nasb] in shame at his coming...every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure" (1 John 2:28 and 3:3). Will we be ready when the Lord returns? Will we be living in such sin that, although His arrival is "our blessed hope" (which indeed it is), we will shrink in shame at His presence. Think about that: the Lord who comes is holy and pure; shall we meet Him in unholiness and impurity of life? To be sure, none of us will be perfect when the Lord returns, but we can be making preparation, as John says, by seeking in every way possible to "purify ourselves as he is pure." Hebrews puts it strongly: "Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (12:14). If we are striving and seeking for holiness and purity of life, we need not shrink in shame at the Lord's appearing. Are you—am I—making ready?

5. Proclaiming the gospel

Paul writes Timothy: "In view of his [Christ's] appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word..." (2 Tim. 4:1-2 niv). This injunction applies to all believers. We are not simply to await eagerly and make ourselves as ready as possible for the Lord's return. Rather in view of Christ's appearing, and while there is yet time, we are to proclaim on every hand the Word—the message of the gospel. Eager as we may be for the Lord's return, we are not to stand gazing into the heavens; but we are to get on with the task of witnessing, desiring (which is first of all the Lord's desire) that all people might come to salvation. Proclaim the Word!

In a study of prophecy by the Book the most assured fact is that Christ will return. We may not know the time or understand many of the details. But, as surely as He came in the Incarnation, Jesus will come again in the Consummation of all things. To Him be the praise and the glory!


Index | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

 

Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.

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