1 "Who may abide the day of his coming?"
"To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word" (Isaiah 66:2).
Time is precious. Such time as we have is a gift from God; it provides us with an opportunity to make diligent preparation for our Lord's return. God expects us to use this time in cultivating a humble, teachable attitude to the Scriptures, including the word of prophecy.
Part One of this book is primarily concerned with latter-day prophecy. The question of attitudes is frankly discussed, and suggestions are offered concerning "things which must shortly come to pass". Some of these suggestions have startling consequences. If they are true, they are also important.
1 "WHO MAY ABIDE THE DAY OF HIS COMING?"
The second coming of Christ is one of our great Christian themes. We have considered it our duty to declare publicly that recent developments in Israel are a sure sign that the Lord's return is near. He is coming to raise the dead; to judge his servants; to reward the righteous; to establish a kingdom; to bring peace to a troubled world — these are important elements of the gospel that we have been proclaiming. And this is as it should be. Week by week we break bread "until he come". Our public prayers usually include the petition that God will send Jesus soon. Our hymns are full of this great theme.
Those who love his appearing
In 2 Timothy 4 Paul refers to two types of people — those who love the Lord's appearing, and those who love this present world: "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing . . . For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (verses 8,10). Our eternal destiny depends upon whether or not we love the Lord's appearing. Despite the publicity that we give to the second coming, I feel constrained to ask: do we really love his appearing, or do we just love talking about it? This question may sound offensive, but it is asked seriously by one who is deeply concerned. It is disturbing to observe that some modern attitudes seem to be remarkably similar to those of certain Jews who lived many hundreds of years ago. They also attached a great deal of importance to the coming of their Messiah. Their prophets had taught them to look forward to the Messiah's coming, and this expectation became a central feature of their religion.
Yet God instructed Amos to write: "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light" (5:18).
And Malachi: "The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts: But who may abide the day of his coming?" (3:1,2).
Events proved that the warning note sounded by the prophets was justified. When the news came that the long-promised Messiah had been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matthew 2:1-3). Just think of it! The people who had said that they desired the day of the Lord were troubled by the report that he had arrived. Why? Because their consciences told them that they were not ready. As long as the Messiah remained away they could declare boldly that they were ready and waiting for him. But the report of his coming frightened them, and the actual confrontation proved disastrous. To use an expression, these people who professed to desire the day of the Lord didn't know what they were letting themselves in for. The circumstances of the Lord's coming were dramatically different from what they had expected. And the Messiah who came was dramatically different from the messiah they had been expecting.
The reason for Israel's failure
Why were the people of Israel not prepared? What went wrong? Let Paul explain: "They that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day,they have fulfilled them in condemning him" (Acts 13:27). They knew him not! They did not recognise him. Yes, the Messiah who came must have been altogether different from the messiah they were expecting. They had a mental picture of the person they wanted, and because Jesus of Nazareth did not match this mental picture they did not recognise him. Consequently they rejected him, and were themselves rejected.
But surely these Jews could have obtained a more accurate picture of the promised Messiah by reading the Old Testament Scriptures? All the information is provided there. Why did they neglect these Scriptures? The amazing fact is that they did not neglect to read their Scriptures. According to Paul (in Acts 13:27 — just quoted) they read them every sabbath day. They read the Scriptures, and yet they did not know "the voices of the prophets". They would have read Psalm 22, Isaiah 42 and Isaiah 53, but they gained nothing from their reading. Because their minds were already filled with their own ideas about the coming deliverer, they were not open to receive the truths revealed in the Scriptures. They could not receive the teaching that their saviour would be despised and would suffer — they read but they did not understand; and ironically they became the very people who despised him and caused him to suffer. They fulfilled these scriptures to their own confusion.
These Jews must have read their Scriptures as a religious duty, a ritual, and this exercise probably made them feel good. They did not read to gain instruction; they thought they knew all the answers already. And because they regarded themselves as a holy people, full of wisdom and knowledge, they were altogether unaware of how unreceptive they were.
The power of prejudice
Please do not miss the point! We have seen that these Jews had already made up their minds. They did not read with minds alert, and hearts open to receive divine instruction. Those truths that they did not like were automatically rejected. Yet they were no different from other men. Prejudice is a deep-rooted human weakness. All men tend to reject unpleasant truths; they have "itching ears" — they love to hear things that please and flatter. Prophets of "smooth things" have always been more popular than those who have fearlessly spoken the truth. Now let us think about ourselves. Are we willing to face unpleasant truths? To begin with, are we willing to face the unpleasant truth that, like others, we have this tendency to reject what we do not like?
While admitting that we also share this human weakness, we might want to add that we would never dream of acting as those Jews did. But that is just what those Jews had said! Earnestly they told themselves and others that they would not have killed the prophets, as their fathers had done — "If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets" (Matthew 23:30); yet they proved that they were true sons of their fathers by killing the very man whose coming those prophets had foretold.
The prejudice of the Lord's disciples
Even the best of men are deeply prejudiced. Think of the Lord's most faithful followers. Although they were willing to sit at their Master's feet and learn; although they were far more teachable than other men — yet even their minds were closed to some unpleasant truths. So strong was their prejudice that it almost destroyed their faith. Consider: "He taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him" (Mark 9: 31,32).
Simple words! The Lord was spelling out to them in plain, literal language the things that were going to happen to him. Could he have expressed himself more simply? Read the words again and see how clear the message is. Yet they could not understand. Prejudice had closed their minds. Are we better than they? If these humble, teachable disciples could be so prejudiced, we ought to be humble enough to admit frankly that we are likely to be at least as prejudiced as they — probably more so.
We must therefore seriously face the possibility that our mental picture of the coming Christ, and our ideas about the events related to the second coming, may be shaped as much by human prejudice as by Scripture. At least let us have the grace to admit the possibility that we may, unwittingly, be rejecting those Bible predictions concerning events related to the second coming that we find offensive.
Trouble and more trouble
We profess to be waiting for the Lord's return. Do we know what we are letting ourselves in for? Do we sufficiently appreciate the fact that the day of the Lord will be a day of darkness? Repeatedly the Scriptures give warning of the trouble that will prevail in the last days. Isaiah speaks of a time when the earth will be turned upside down; of cities being turned into heaps; of the earth being made desolate with few men left.1 Jeremiah states that the cup of God's wrath will be drunk by all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.2 Jerusalem has twice drunk of this cup — once when the city was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar; and again when it was destroyed by the Romans. In his Lamentations, Jeremiah recounts the degradation and misery of the first occasion; and the historian Josephus has told the world about the fearful sufferings that came upon that once splendid city when the Romans besieged and destroyed it. From these accounts we have some idea of the scale and intensity of the trouble that will engulf the world. Indeed, God assures the nations of the world that they will be punished as Jerusalem was:
"For, lo, I begin to bring evil on the city which is called by my name, and should ye be utterly unpunished? Ye shall not be unpunished: for I will call for a sword upon all the inhabitants of the earth, saith the Lord of hosts" (Jeremiah 25:29). No wonder Daniel says that there shall be a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation. The time when this universal trouble will prevail is stated — it is the time when resurrection and judgment will take place; and we should know that this will be when the Lord returns:
"... and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:1,2). The Lord's return cannot be far away. The extraordinary events that we have recently witnessed in Israel are proof enough of this. The time of unprecedented trouble will soon be upon us. Indeed it is already overtaking us. Even now the consequences of plundered resources, pollution and over-population are being felt keenly. Millions of people are on the breadline, and most nations have serious economic problems. Materialism and Islam are engulfing the world. Democracy is dwindling and becoming impotent.
Are we who believe in the second coming acting like people who expect the world to be turned upside down? Do we comfort ourselves with the thought that, as servants of God, we shall be removed from the wrath to come? It is true that God's servants will be delivered from the ultimate outpouring of divine wrath on the nations, but the Scriptures also teach that before the last, irrevocable judgments there will be a time of tribulation for the people of God. In fact, their faithfulness to God will bring them into disfavour with men and make life even more difficult for them.
We need reserves of spiritual strength to enable us to endure the physical and political earthquakes that are already beginning to rock the world. Are we building up these reserves now? Or are we pursuing the vanities that the nations of the world seek after? There may be some excuse for unenlightened worldlings, but what excuse shall we be able to offer?
When the last terrible shaking occurs, people will cast their idols of silver and their idols of gold to the moles and to the bats.3 The crisis will reveal the uselessness of these coveted possessions, these things for which men have laboured and in which they have placed their trust. Happy are those who, before the crisis, will have learned how vain and foolish are the idols of the Gentiles. Happy are those who will have learned to put their trust in the Living God in a time when He may be found.
It is profitable to ponder the words that God instructed the prophet Jeremiah to speak to Baruch the son of Neriah: "The Lord saith thus: Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I have planted I will pluck up, even this whole land. And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest" (Jeremiah 45:4,5).
Baruch was on God's side when judgment was about to descend upon impenitent Israel. But his faithfulness was marred by a little self-interest and, perhaps, a touch of self-pity. Hence the rebuke. This message has an even greater relevance to us than it had to Baruch. God is about to destroy, not just one nation, but the whole of civilisation. And are we, at such a time, seeking great things for ourselves?
Seek them not, brethren! Seek, rather, the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Persecution to come
There is evidence in Scripture that some believers will suffer persecution before the final deliverance. We cannot be certain that this will include us, but it is a distinct possibility. Certainly some of our brethren will be persecuted. This is another reason why we should be preparing diligently now.
Yet, far from preparing for persecution, most of our number have never carefully examined the Scriptures that warn us of the testing time to come. Those of us who are impressed by the weight of Bible evidence concerning persecution find it difficult to get brethren to take the matter seriously. From time to time, however, we do meet those who regard it as their duty indignantly to resist the idea.
The Book of Revelation
The pages that follow will be concerned largely with the book of Revelation, because this book has so much to do with the Lord's second coming, and can help us to prepare for that occasion.
It has to be stated plainly here that there is a great deal of prejudice against the straightforward, scriptural study of this book amongst people who ought to know better. Those who, in other contexts, readily approve of the principle that the Bible must be the ultimate authority, seem to forget that this principle also applies to Revelation. They prefer to base their interpretations of Revelation on the writings of brethren who have gone before rather than on the Bible itself. Our pioneers in the faith have helped to lead us to the Truth by courageously rejecting the traditions of men and turning to the Word of God! How ironical that some of those who profess to follow these pioneers should have done the opposite by setting the writings of these brethren above the Word of God.
It is sad that zealous brethren should regard it as their duty to oppose any non-traditional exposition of any part of Revelation, however tentatively it is submitted. The attitude of some to the book of Revelation is a good example of the power of prejudice in our community. Recalling the failure of Israel, what a warning this should be.
A quotation from the writings of Brother John Thomas may be appropriate here:
"All writers and speakers must be unceremoniously tried by this [the Word of God]; for, God hath said, that "if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them". It matters not who the sinner may be; pope, cardinal, archbishop, bishop, minister, or their admirers; or, even one of the saints of God, or an angel himself; nothing he may say, or write, must be received unless in strict conformity to this word; and of this the people must judge for themselves upon their own responsibility; and in the face of their eternal weal, or rejection from the Kingdom of God. To this Book, then, we appeal for light — for information concerning the things which shall be hereafter."4
The responsibility of expounding a portion of God's Word is a heavy one. The present writer is acutely conscious of this fact. It would be seriously wrong to try to persuade people to accept interpretations of God's Word that could be contrary to that which God Himself intended.
The book of Revelation is doubly difficult. It concerns prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled — this is bound to present problems; and there is such an amazing concentration of symbols that one must admit the possibility of following wrong clues and coming to wrong conclusions. Conscience compels me to say this, although some may be quick to interpret it as a confession of weakness. Unreasonable dogmatism too often masquerades as strength. Nevertheless, because of the possibility of misleading people, I shall proceed tentatively, suggesting rather than asserting whenever there appears to be an element of doubt. If, occasionally, enthusiasm should sound like dogmatism, I hope that this assurance will not be forgotten.
Readers are earnestly requested to act in accordance with the worthiest New Testament tradition and test these suggestions prayerfully, and by reference to Scripture. Remember those noble Bereans!5 The Bible, and the Bible alone, must be the standard of appeal.
Some readers of the Bible are so confused by the complex and conflicting attempts that are made to expound the book of Revelation that they have decided it is quite out of their reach. "The book of Revelation is not for me", they say.
What a tragedy it would be if this were true! Here is a message that comes from the Lord Jesus and, in large measure, concerns the Lord Jesus. It is given for the purpose of showing the Lord's servants things which must shortly come to pass. Clearly our Lord regards this message as important: so much so that he says: "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand" (1:3). This promise of special blessing makes Revelation unique. Dare we neglect it? Others excuse themselves because they are "not clever enough". Frankly, the book is difficult — but therein lies the challenge. However, let us be clear on one thing: if we measure our wisdom against this great prophecy, it will not just be difficult to understand — it will be impossible. This is why it is so important to approach this study with humility and to seek help from God, who has promised His wisdom to those who ask in faith (James 1:5).
Students of Revelation need to develop an intense desire to understand. Those who have this desire will read the book of Revelation, and they will keep reading it. In this way they will make themselves familiar with the subject matter of the book, even before they understand what it means. Constantly they will be on the look-out for links with other scriptures. Their assurance that the Bible is indeed its own interpreter will spur them on.
They will also pray earnestly, as Daniel did, for an understanding of problems that are too deep and wonderful for mere human intellect to resolve. "He giveth wisdom unto the wise." Adapting Psalm 119:18, their prayer will be: Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of the book of Revelation.
If only . . .
We believe that the Lord Jesus is coming back soon because a great prophetic programme, based largely on Daniel's prophecies, has almost runs its course, and because of the remarkable tevival of Jewish life in the land of Israel. We believe that there will be a day of reckoning, and that a kingdom will be established on the earth. An invasion of the land of Israel must also be fitted into the picture, somehow. But what is the sequence? What can we expect very soon? Where do we go from here?
As far as the immediate future is concerned there is a great void. Nay, it is even more serious. To the extent that we thought we understood the details, we have been proved wrong. We thought that the kingdom would have been established by this time — but we are still waiting. Contrary to our expectations — which were based on an interpretation of prophecy which we believed and proclaimed dogmatically — Britain forsook Israel and left her to the mercy of implacable Arab enemies. Suddenly and dramatically the State of Israel was born; and although the people of Israel are, for the most part, still unbelievers, they have performed exploits.
The State of Israel has been in existence since 1948. We were right in expecting the people of Israel to settle in their ancient land: our expectations have been realised. But we were not expecting the independent State of Israel to be established before the Lord's return, and we certainly did not reckon on these thirty years since Israel became independent.
It is disturbing that we were not prepared for these developments, but it is a graver cause for concern that hardly anybody seems troubled about it.
The way things have happened, and the way things have not happened, should have rebuked our misguided dogmatism, shaken us out of our complacency and made us very humble. Our failure to understand should also have prompted us to review our approach to latter-day prophecy. How many more shocks do we need before we realise how unprepared we are?
Now imagine, if you will, something that is distinctly possible. Imagine that you have got some of your prophetic sequences wrong. You are expecting (let us suppose) a certain important event to precede the Lord's advent, which is actually scheduled to come after it. In this case, the "important event" will not be a sign of the Lord's coming after all. If you are waiting for this event, comforting yourself with the thought that it will alert you and give you an opportunity to make your final preparation for the great day, then you will wait too long.
Or suppose that the book of Revelation reveals that some utterly unexpected political developments will take place before the kingdom: is it not important that we should know about them? If we are not prepared for these developments the shock may be too great for us. We may be so shattered by the sudden realisation that our understanding of prophecy has been wrong that our faith could be shaken to its very foundations. We could start having doubts about truths that are assured and fundamental to our faith; worse, we could have devastating doubts about our own standing before God.
Already it has been intimated that there are predictions of persecution to come. We shall look at the evidence later. If it proves true, we cannot afford to remain in ignorance.
Important developments could take place soon. Changes could be sudden.
Remember: a major war was fought and finished in six days. It was in a context concerned with the signs of his coming that the Lord Jesus told the parable of the fig tree:
"Now learn a parable of the fig tree; when his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: so likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (Matthew 24:32-34).
Does this mean that the generation that witnesses the birth of the State of Israel will also witness the Lord's return? It looks like it. A passage in the preceding chapter in Matthew, where the word "generation" is used in a comparable context, may give us some idea of the length of time involved. Speaking about the vengeance on Jerusalem that would follow his own ministry, the Lord said: "Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation" (23:36). These words were spoken about A.D. 30 and it was all over by A.D. 70 — 40 years later.
Compare this period with the time that has elapsed since the State of Israel was born. This book is being written in 1978 — thirty years later. Time seems to be running out. A great deal may have to happen in a short time.
The consequences of Israel's ignorance were calamitous. The Lord Jesus wept when he thought of the misery and desolation that would soon overtake Jerusalem. Proud and ignorant, the people preferred darkness to light. If only they had known!
How tragic if we shall have to exclaim when it is too late: If only we had known!
1. Isaiah 24:1; 25:2; 24:6
2. Jeremiah 25:15-29
3. Isaiah 2:19-21
4. Elpis Israel, page 170
5. Acts 17:10,11