Sadly enough, I don’t remember many sermons from my childhood—a humbling realization for a pastor who preaches sermons! But I do remember a few evening services in the 70’s in which our congregation gathered to watch a series of movies about the end times—the first of which was A Thief in the Night. I will never forget some of the images burned into my mind from that movie. By today’s standards, the cinematography was crude and primitive. At the time, however, it was riveting. I found the film frightening and exciting at the same time—exciting in the sense that it intensified my belief that the end was near. Decades later, the same “end times” theology would be repackaged in literary form in the popular series, Left Behind—fictional, yet built on a particular interpretive approach to the book of Revelation (and prophecy in general). I was taught the view, believed the view and shared the view with others. While there is neither time or space in this brief article to parse out the particulars of the view, it assumes that the events described in the book of Revelation—particularly, the events following chapter 4— are to be interpreted somewhat literally and in a linear fashion—a chronological road map of judgments poured out on the earth at the end of the age (a final 7 years to be exact).
What I enjoyed about this approach to the Bible was the sense of anticipation and expectancy that it nurtured. I actually felt like the return of Jesus was near. As Christians, we should be filled with longing and anticipation for this grand reunion! What I disliked about the end-times fascination, was that it tended to incite more hype than holiness in the lives of those around me (including myself). Too, it tended to focus on the sequence of events prior to the end rather than the return of the Savior himself—who is the crowning joy of all Christian hope. And finally, it assumes that we can accurately identify how prophecy is being fulfilled in real-time as we move into the future. Back in the day, I distinctly remember Christians identifying Henry Kissinger (then, the Secretary of State), as a possible candidate for the position of false prophet…or possibly the anti-Christ! Of course, it never came to be. In retrospect, it strikes me as somewhat unkind toward the late Mr. Kissinger to label him as such.
Why do I bring this up? Well…because 2020 has snowballed into an apocalyptic-type year—plagues, lawlessness, riots, violence, fires…all in a highly combustible election season. As such, the end-times voices are speaking again—calling out specific current events (e.g. the COVID pandemic) as fulfillments of specific, biblical prophecies of the end. I will admit that such interpretations generate “end times” excitement and perhaps fear (depending on where you come down on the rapture issue and its timing). But I have to ask if this fascination with identifying particular current events with particular prophecies is edifying to the church? Or, does it create false-excitement, unnecessary fear or even spiritual distraction? I believe so.
While we should remain fixed in hope on the horizon of the future for the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, our primary focus should not be combing through contemporary events trying to decipher a prophetic map. And here’s why.
First, Jesus explicitly taught us that no one knows when the end will come (Matthew 24:36). It will be a surprise. While we may have reasons to anticipate that the end is drawing near (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2:3), God has a way of fulfilling his prophetic word that is often unexpected and surprising. Too, some prophecies indicate multiple fulfillments making any final identification somewhat problematic (Matthew 24:24, 1 John 2:18).
Consider for a moment how unexpected and surprising the first coming of Jesus was. As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the central message of the Hebrew prophets (Luke 24:27). Yet, no one expected a couple from Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem, to give birth to the messiah in a cave. Moreover, his entire ministry (again, the central subject of the Old Testament) was baffling to Jesus’ contemporaries. Jesus, quite literally, didn’t fit into their messianic box! Even John the Baptist, with his prophetic call, questioned whether Jesus was the one (Matt 11:3)—again, signifying the surprising way in which God fulfilled his prophetic word. Paul argues that even the rulers of this age couldn’t figure out how the Scripture would be fulfilled (1 Cor 2:8), otherwise they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory.
This teaches us something about prophecy and its fulfillment; namely, that fulfillment is largely discerned retrospectively (looking backward) as opposed to prospectively (looking forward). There is sufficient ambiguity in the prophetic word to require humble faith in God’s surprising and often unpredictable fulfillment; yet, sufficient clarity that when the fulfillment actually takes place, we look back and say, “Wow! How did I miss that? It’s so clear!” Paul speaks of the gospel of Christ as “the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed…” (Romans 16:25-26). The very centerpiece of Scripture—Jesus and his work—was “the mystery” proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets of old. Yet, it wasn’t until later that it was “disclosed” through the apostles. Jesus was there all along in the Old Testament prophets, yet sufficiently hidden. This tells me that combing through current events in hopes of ferreting out prospective fulfillments is at best, speculative and at worst…a waste of time.
The best we can say, as we experience apocalyptic-type events happening now, is a cautious, “Maybe.” What we can be sure of is that Jesus will, in fact, return. Of that, we may be confident. How we get there or by what sequence of events is far less important. Rather, Jesus’ parables about the end stress the importance of watchfulness, faithfulness, fruitfulness and love (see Matthew 25 in its entirety). Let’s major on these things. As we do, let us spur one another on to love and good works as we anticipate our great hope.