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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BIBLE PROPHECYIN 12 LESSONS
By MAX ANDERS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 1997 Max Anders
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhy Study Prophecy?
Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Brontë in 1847, is one of the most popular and enduring novels of the English language. It is a moving story of character, faith, love and redemption. The heroine, Jane Eyre, overcomes nearly insurmountable odds as a destitute orphan to achieve love, happiness and fulfillment as an adult.
Many movies have been made of Jane Eyre. Nearly all books are better than movies that are based on them, and that is no exception with Jane Eyre. However, there is a 1987 BBC version starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke that is quite faithful to the book.
I will never forget the first time I saw that version, especially one spooky scene that takes place in the middle of the night in a castle. A demented lady enters Jane Eyre's bedroom, and as Jane wakes and sees the ghastly specter moving in the room, the tension builds almost to the screaming point. The hideous form stalks about the room menacingly, and then it goes over to Jane, who is lying motionless and silent but with eyes wide open. Suddenly, a patch of candlelight reveals the demented face to Jane. The camera zooms in close for effect, and then the hideous intruder screams and lashes out at Miss Eyre. Of course, the movie director saw fit to accompany that explosive moment with a great crash of dissonant music. I almost toppled senseless to the floor.
The scene passed with no harm coming to Jane Eyre, and the movie continued, but that scene left my nerves vibrating like electrical wires in a strong wind.
Years later, my wife and I were watching the same movie with my brother and sister-in-law, who were seeing it for the first time. I had seen the movie several times since then, so it held none of the original suspense for me. I now knew the end from the beginning, so I could sit and enjoy it for the quality of the acting, script, and cinematography.
But out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my sister-in-law was showing the same signs of emotional strain which I had felt the first time I had seen the above, nerve-wracking scene. Her face was charged with tension. Her jaw was set, her mouth pursed tight, and her eyes were open wide and fixed on the scene. Oh, this is going to be good, I thought. She is going to go ballistic. I sat there biding my time, anticipating with pleasure, at my sister-in-law's expense, when the movie's gruesome goblin would make her move. I was not disappointed. My sister-in-law was stretched like a rubber band to the breaking point, and when the Great Moment came she jumped as though she had been jolted by electricity, and then she screamed unself-consciously.
It is certainly a flaw in my character, but I could not keep from laughing. I sat there, shoulders shaking, laughing the voiceless, breathy laugh of someone who cannot help it but doesn't want to get caught.
Later, I thought about the difference between a movie that you have seen only once and one that you have seen many times. When you see it again, you know the details and the ending, and that knowledge takes away the dread, the suspense, the emotional tension. I knew the story. My sister-in-law did not. I knew everything was going to turn out okay, even though the present circumstances were frightening. My sister-in-law did not. I knew there was going to be a happy ending. My sister-in-law did not. Obviously, knowing the future makes all the difference as to how we react to the present.
So it is with real life. Those who know the future, as revealed in the Bible, have a definite advantage over those who do not. Biblical prophecy tells us the future, and gives us strength, steadiness, and confidence in the midst of troubling circumstances; and it allows us to rest in the certainty of a happy ending to life and history. As someone once quipped about the Bible, "I read the last chapter, and we win!"
What Is Prophecy?
Prophecy is the proclamation of the will of God, both present and future.
A prophet is someone who speaks for God. We see prophets both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. They spoke for God in two different ways: forthtelling and foretelling. Forthtelling involved proclaiming the known word and will of God to His people; it could be understood as a "near-term" prophecy. Forthtelling included Bible teaching, evangelizing, and revival preaching, urging people to turn from sin and to live in righteousness, and warning what would happen to them if they did not repent. This was by far the major part of their ministry.
A second dimension to the ministry of a prophet was foretelling, or "predicting the future." This could be understood as "distant-term" prophecy. These predictions were not the prophets' own predictions, however. The Scripture makes clear in 2 Peter 1:20–21 that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." In other words, when God wanted to give information about the future to His people, He revealed that information to one of His prophets who then spoke that message to its intended audience.
When we talk about the subject of prophecy, it is usually this latter feature that is of greatest interest to us. We have a natural desire to know about the future, and when we learn that the Bible speaks about the future, our interest is stirred.
Why Study Prophecy?
We study prophecy not only to learn about the future but also to have it influence our daily lives.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God gives us information about the future not merely to satisfy our curiosity. Rather there are at least four reasons why God has given us prophecy.
Prophecy Encourages Godly Living
Perhaps the clearest point the Bible makes about prophecy is that information about the future is designed to purify us in the present. The apostle John wrote in his first epistle, "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2–3). When we think about the time when we shall see God, it stimulates us to purify ourselves in preparation to meet the One who is pure.
I'm embarrassed to say this, but on the rare occasions when my wife, Margie, is away for a few days, I'm pretty casual about housekeeping. I let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink. I leave Rice Krispie® crumbs on the counter where I spilled them. Magazines and books remain all over the living room and my dirty socks lay where they fell on the middle of the bedroom floor. But as the day for Margie's return draws near, I begin looking at everything through her eyes. I know her well enough to realize that what appears to me to be a comfortable, casual bachelor's pad will look like a pigsty to her. And usually just in the nick of time, I fly through the house cleaning and straightening and putting everything in its proper place. When she returns, the house is spotless and I'm exhausted!
The same thing in principle often happens to us in our relationship with God. We lose sight that we are going to die or that Jesus could return at any moment. So we begin acting as though we will live forever or that Jesus will never return. Dirty dishes pile up in our hearts. Clutter and junk accumulates in our minds. Dirty socks are left on the floor. Needless to say, God doesn't want us to live this way. And when we read in the Scriptures about the Lord's return, we are reminded that we need to get our house in order and to live each day as though He could return that day. Yes, one of the key purposes of prophecy is to encourage us to godly living.
Bible prophecy is a complex subject, however, and not easily mastered. It is easy to overstep our actual understanding of prophecy without realizing it. For example, I came to Christ in college during a fever pitch of interest in Bible prophecy and the end times. It was in the mid-1960s, and it seemed as if we were just beginning to understand some of the hidden things in the Scripture about the final events of history. Shortly after my coming to Christ, a book written about the end of the world sold millions of copies. It was so clear. The end was at hand. Bible teachers were putting two and two together, and one thing seemed certain to me. I would never see my fortieth birthday on earth.
Thirty years have come and gone. My fortieth birthday has come and gone. I'm still here. And this has made me become very cautious about exceeding what I really know about biblical prophecy.
It reminds me of the time when, as a new Christian, I encountered two people at a large religious gathering who seemed ready to fight each other over whether the earth was going to be destroyed by fire in the future. They were nose to nose, like a seasoned drill sergeant and a clumsy new recruit, except that they were both acting like the drill sergeant. Brows were furrowed in anger, neck veins were bulging, eyes were popping, and ungracious words were pouring like water from a fire hydrant.
Such attitudes over possible prophetic meanings reveal that Christians are missing the whole point of biblical prophecy and missing an opportunity to influence the world. The point of prophecy is not merely to satisfy our curiosity. Nor has enough prophetic information been given to us to let us say with absolute confidence that we know exactly what's going to happen in the future. Certainly it is valid to discuss possible meanings and to hold personal convictions about them. But it is a complete collapse of the true purpose of prophecy when Christians alienate each other over the meanings of prophetic passages.
There are enough spiritually mature, well-educated and intelligent people on many different sides of the prophetic issues, and this helps us see that we ought to treat responsible positions on prophecy with respect. We should never allow ourselves to degenerate into an attitude that wants to win a biblical argument at the expense of Christian character.
A second problem resulting from Christians feuding over prophecy is that it compromises our witness. The world looks at us and wonders what significance prophecy has for them. People are smart enough to realize that if Christian truth results in Christians fighting among themselves, then what value is there in biblical prophecy? Prophetic truth can be a powerful tool to encourage people to accept the other truths of Scripture, but usually only if the message is combined with a compelling Christian character. Therefore, as we study and discuss prophetic truth, as we come to our own convictions about it, and as we proclaim it, we must do so with a spirit of peace, love, and respect for other responsible positions. We must proclaim our message with a backdrop of credible Christian character.
Prophecy Gives Us Hope and Comfort
I will never forget my reaction when I learned, in the first days of my Christian life, that Jesus could return at any moment and that many other people also believed this, because the signs of the times suggested that He would. I was excited and disappointed at the same time. I was excited that I would never have to die a natural death and that I would live to see the climactic events of life on earth. But I was disappointed because I would never get to realize some of my dreams. My whole life lay ahead of me. I wanted to get married, have children, and be a success in life. I wanted Jesus to return, but not until I had enjoyed some of the things this world had to offer. When I had had the best of this world, then it could end; and then I could enjoy the best of the next world. I wanted it all.
Since then, I have tasted many of the successes and enjoyments that this world has to offer, and none of them in my opinion offers enough reward compared to what heaven will be like. And I can tell you now that I am ready for Jesus to return. I long for history to end and for a righteous eternity to begin. It is not that I do not enjoy life. The good things that I have enjoyed in life have been, in large measure, better and greater than I ever imagined they would be when I was young. But at the same time, the pain and disappointment has also been greater. In addition, I have begun to empathize with the pain and suffering of the world around me in a way I never did as an idealistic young man, as someone living in the most privileged country at the most privileged time in history.
Now, to me, one of the most precious passages in Scripture is Revelation 21:4, "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."
When I assess the personal pain, both physical and emotional, that has come to me since the early days of my Christian faith, when I see the pain of loved ones, when I see pain of others, when I see the ghastly examples of man's inhumanity to man worldwide, when I see the pressure rising on global problems like an overheated pressure cooker, it is then that I read God's promises of an ultimate end to the ravages of sin, and I greet them like a rescue ship to one who is adrift on a life raft at sea. Saved, I think. We will be saved!
Truths about the end times and the events that transition us out of time and into eternity are no longer abstract truths that I am ambivalent about. Like the person lost at sea, I cling to the hope these truths give, and prophecy becomes meaningful. I believe prophecy often becomes more important to us as we see the end of life drawing near. When we wrestle with poor health or life-shattering circumstances or bitter disappointments, God's prophetic words of promise for our future assure us and strengthen us for faithful, joyful endurance.
A piece of graffiti says it well: Life is hard and then you die. That is the perspective of those who are not able to look to a time when wrong will be righted, when pain will cease and all will be well. Prophecy gives us that comfort, that peace, that hope. It lets us look into the future and learn that in the end God will set everything right and all will be well.
Prophecy Warns Us to Flee from the Wrath to Come
For those who have not received Christ as their personal savior, there is nothing to look forward to in death; just the opposite, death is to be greatly feared. Those who die without Christ pay the full penalty for their sins. Those who die in Christ are forgiven of their sins and Jesus takes their penalty. For that reason, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:18, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . ." Knowing this, we are warned, and we can flee from the wrath to come.
Prophecy Gives Us Confidence in God's Character and Sovereignty
I have a friend who has produced and directed several movies. He once told me that no matter how chaotic the movie appears to be on the screen, whether it is a fighting scene, a riot, or people fleeing in danger, nothing happens by accident. Everything on the screen is calculated and planned down to the last person and smallest action. Though things seem to be utterly out of control, the director has them solidly in control. Life is not a movie, but it does at times appear to be out of control. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are men committing acts of inhumanity against other men. There is famine. There are earthquakes. There are revolutions and uprisings. And yet through all this, God is working a good and perfect will. It may make no sense to us, but some day it will. The screen of our lives sometimes reveals a great deal of chaos, and yet when we see behind the scenes, when we see how the Great Movie was made, we will see that God had everything under control.
If it were not for Scripture, we wouldn't have the faintest reason to believe this. Without prophecy showing us how history is marching from the beginning through a middle and to a conclusion that is predetermined, we could easily come to the conclusion that this life is chaotic and meaningless.
Psalm 103:19 says, "The Lord has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all."
Excerpted from WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BIBLE PROPHECY by MAX ANDERS Copyright © 1997 by Max Anders. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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