“We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)
Bible prophecy is not much in vogue among many preachers today. Prophecy, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, is the raw material of eschatology, the doctrine of last things. One kind of eschatology is apocalyptic, which has a heavy overlay of the imminence of the Lord’s return and of impending judgment. Whatever may be our theological system, this is the end of the doctrinal encyclopedia that generally gets scant utterance in the typical evangelical pulpit. There are exceptions, of course, where prophecy has become the “hobby” of some preachers with a resulting pulpit that is altogether out of balance.
It is being said of most graduates of my own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, an institution which confesses its belief in “the imminent and premillennial” return of Jesus Christ: “our preacher seldom touches eschatology.” The first six chapters of Daniel about does it. The first three and the last three chapters of Revelation are it. The late Paul Feinberg and I often taught “Preaching Bible Prophecy,” and the fifteen or so students were assigned sermon texts out of the heart of Biblical apocalyptic. The sermon proposition in almost every case was the wholly true but vacuously general sentence: “God is sovereign.” Thank God for this glorious truth but are there no more definite or detailed ideas about the wrap-up of space-time history set forth in this passage as over against other passages? What are we afraid of? Why not preach Bible prophecy?
Hazards To Be Overcome
Some among us have developed a severe allergy to preaching Bible prophecy because they were over-exposed to a suffocating overage at some earlier stage in their development. Some preachers have been more interested in the number of hairs on the beard of the he-goat in Daniel 8 than in the seven sins of believers. But the pendulum effect is in fact an immature reaction. Imbalance is no excuse for imbalance.
There have been the “crazies” and the “looneys” among us (and this is true down through history; see my The Company of Hope: A History of Bible Prophecy in the Church, 2004) who have majored in date-setting and identification of the anti-Christ. Much attention is paid to the Jupiter Effect, the tunnels in the great pyramids, the “gospel in the stars,” the Bible Codes and all manner of extra-Biblical data which come very close to becoming “adding” to the Word of God (Deut. 4:2, Rev. 22:18). Anything we know about the shape of things to come must be what careful Biblical exegesis yields and what legitimate inquiry and reflection at the next level may assert by way of implication.
Putting it bluntly, really preaching Bible prophecy necessitates more work and study than many are willing to give it. Mastery of Daniel and Zechariah, the Olivet Discourse, 2 Thessalonians and the Revelation and their intertextual relationships is formidible. But is it worth it? We are helped here by awareness of our system – which is also true of every other major theological entry we bring into discourse.
Preaching Biblical prophecy is distasteful to some because there is so much controversy and difference of opinion. But controversy attends all doctrinal preaching. Adhering to basic and sound hermeneutical principles drastically reduces our options. “Grasp the thistle firmly. . .”
The Heights Which Should Be Scaled
A more positive and regular utilization of these resources is imperative and important for several reasons:
The sheer bulk of prophetic material requires our coming to terms with it because it is part of the “all Scripture” which is profitable and “the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27) which is essential for the Christian life. One verse out of four in the New Testament has to do with the eschaton. We must deal with them.
The return of Jesus Christ and the complex of events in connection with it is a critical part of what Christianity is. In the eight chapters of the Thessalonian correspondence Paul refers to the return of the Lord in seven of them. In his short-time in that locale, he dealt with matters of the anti-Christ and what restrains his denouement (2 Thess. 2:5). The essence of the Christian life is clearly “turning from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait up for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:9-10). The past, present and future perspectives are all critical.
In Hebrews 9 the inspired writer delineates three appearings of Christ – He has appeared to put away sin, He now appears in heaven for us, and to those who look for Him He will appear a second time (9:26, 24, 28). The ultimate assurance of His completing the work He has begun provides an indispensable encouragement for all Christians (Phil. 1:6).
Fulfilled prophecy is of inestimable significance in an apologetic sense, as with Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, her captivity in Babylon and Persia, the prophecy of the seventy sevens in Daniel 9, the massive prophecies of our Lord Jesus, His life and ministry and the 25 specific prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Hippolytus is already expostulating about the detached seventieth week of Daniel 9 in the early third century. The Bible is uniquely a book of predictive prophecy. Fulfilled prophecy also provides us the key to future fulfillment inasmuch as all of these prophecies were fulfilled literally, historically and most accurately.
The Christian hope is part of the powerful ethical dynamic of the Christian life – “Everyone who has this hope in him, purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). The early church lived in the constant expectation of the Savior’s return – Paul anticipated being alive at the parousia (1 Thess. 4:17, Heb. 10:37, James 5:8,1 Pet. 4:7, I John 3:18, etc.). Eugene Peterson has well insisted that, “Everything in the New Testament is written under the pressure of the end. Christ is coming back…this is an urgent time” (Subversive Christianity, 242). Perhaps some of our torpor and lassitude in the church today derives from our de-eschatologization.
Eschatology is more of a point of contact with our culture than many of us seem to realize. All of the major news magazines had cover features on the LaHaye/Jenkins Left Behind books. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the scenario of these books, they are a plausible laying out of a possible sequence of end-time events of a kind we have oftenhad. Michael O’Brien has a similar series of novels of Roman Catholic vintage. Repeatedly on The New York Times bestseller list and read by millions, these books have led many to the Savior. Christ is set forth again and again as Savior and Lord. They are not great literature but are a kind of evangelical Star Wars.
Gallup and Barna have both found that some 62% of the American people believe Christ is coming back and over 40% believe he may come back in their lifetime. We have a foot in the door with these folks and need to exploit it. They will not be satisfied with being told to be pan-millennialists (everything is going to pan out in the end). Nor can we leave the exposition of these great truths to nuts and “whackos.” Eschatology deserves serious, thoughtful, sensitive address.
Highways of Scriptural Sanity in a Nutty World
Evangelicals in North America right now are in a fairly fluid state eschatologically. Historic amillennialism is suffering considerable defection in our time (called realized millennialism or fulfilled millennialism by Jay Adams) because it is essentially negative and not very interactive. (Ever hear of an amillennial conference on Bible prophecy?) R.C Sproul has become a preterist (basic fulfillment of Christ’s prophecies occurred in 70 A.D.). Theonomists often blend preterism (with an attempt to give Revelation a date before 70 A.D.) with a new postmillennialism. Among premillennialists, the post-trib or mid-trib have never really caught fire outside of the academic classroom and just aren’t “preached” much in the pulpits. Little better are the partial rapturists who are really wrestling with the issue of the carnal Christian as are the Lordship Salvation advocates.
Historic dispensational premillennialism (with its two-stage parousia and its insistence on the difference between Israel and the Church) seemed to have been in a serious slump except for three factors resulting in its substantial rejuvenation. Not even Rosenthal’s pre-wrath rapture or the inroads of progressive dispensationalism have held back a veritable renaissance of interest and excitement in classical dispensational circles.
First, the Left Behind books have rallied the troops. A steady stream of new publications has been a boon.Second, the generally apocalyptic nature of our times has fed into this movement for many who hear the word apocalyptic everywhere except in the church! In addition, this interest is fed by the continuing crisis in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the modern state of Israel. Dating well back before Darby to the Puritans and the Continental Pietists, something special for geo-political Israel has re-energized the people of God. Even amills like D.M.Lloyd-Jones believed the return of the Jews to the Holy Land had sizeable significance and even the postmillennialist Charles Hodge held that Romans 11 described something which would befall ethnic Israel at the end of history.
Given the serious flux and ferment of our times and the tendency to silence on these crucial issues among us, is this not the hour for all of us to re-examine our systems and hermeneutic? Let us in good spirit open serious discussion and substantive preaching on the relevant issues. We can preach our own convictions with fervor, recognizing that sincere Christians have contrary viewpoints. Ask your people to pray for you where you are in error, for you will be praying for them that they will see the light. Let us not go beyond what Scripture says but let us not be silent or stuttering where Scripture does speak.
A good place to start is with the prophetic parables of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse. Or lead your people in a brief series on “Prophetic Personalities” – contrast the living Christ of Revelation 1 with the beast out of the sea in Revelation 13, etc. Perhaps a series on “Great Prophetic Absolutes” will be a timely address to this mass of material – ‘I will come again;” “Anti-Christ will come;” “Scoffers will come;” “Perilous times shall come;” etc. Is there not an itch here which the preacher ought to scratch?
Look back over your preaching of the last several years – are you in an eschatological debit? Perhaps this is the time to reflect upon how you can better pay attention to and use this light that is shining in a murky and squalid place.
David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.