April 30, 2022 - Latter-day Prophecy (Overview)

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Today we begin a series on Latter-day Prophecy. What does the Bible say about the last days, including the end of the world and the return of Christ? Today we’re going to begin with an overview of the subject, and then over the next few programs we’ll be taking a closer look at the book of Revelation, the prophecies of Jesus, the prophecies of Paul, and then we’ll be doing studies on entire books of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Minor Prophets. Join us for this whole series on Biblical Words and World!


Prophecy is proclaiming the word of God. It may or may not involve prediction. When we look at Bible prophecy, some of it is God’s spin on the past and the present, some of it is predictions that have already been fulfilled, and some of it is predictions that have not yet been fulfilled, but will be someday. Our focus is going to be on events that have not yet taken place.


Biblical prophecy gives us no detailed road map of the future, only clues. When I was in college, I once visited a Bible study where the leader had a detailed chart of exactly what would happen in the end times. I thought, Wow! I hope someday to be able to do that! Today, having studied the material on that chart, I am much less confident on the details, but I am convinced that there are landmark clues the Bible gives us about future events that will someday take place.


Compared to other prophetic claims out there like the mystical writings of Nostradamus, Biblical prophecy is beyond compare. Biblical prophecy is detailed, it is meaningful, it is important, and it is credible. It has withstood centuries of cross-examination by hostile critics.


When reading Biblical prophecy, we need to separate visions of future events from events that have already taken place by now, since Biblical prophets often package the two together. It’s not always easy to separate the two. We look at Jesus’ predictions about the end of the world in Mark 13, and some of it appears to have already taken place within 40 years of his day, but some of it has not been fulfilled, which means either that Jesus was wrong (which I do NOT accept), or that these predictions are still in our future. The fact that these predictions are stuck so closely together may confuse us, but it’s a lot like looking at a mountain in a mountain range and not being able to tell if the mountain is close or much further away than we thought.


So we may look at Bible predictions and ask, “When did this ever happen?” But if there is no fulfillment yet that we can point to, we should not conclude that the prediction was false. The very fact that the prediction has been preserved for us is evidence that the Bible editors believed these words were not mistaken, but were yet to be fulfilled.


Sometimes, Biblical prophets give prophecies that may not have appeared to be true at first. For example, in Haggai 2:21-23, God says to Zerubbabel, governor of post-exilic Judah, that he will “shake heaven and earth” and “overthrow the throne of kingdoms.” On that day, God says to Zerubbabel, “I will make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you.” When did this happen? Haggai’s audience may have heard these words and thought that Zerubbabel would soon become the world-ruling Messiah. Only when this meaning did not pan out immediately did Judah figure out that this prophecy must have been for the day of the Lord at the end of time.


Or look at Jeremiah’s prophecy that King Jehoiakim will be buried “with the burial of an ass, dragged and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem.” (Jeremiah 22:19) The Bible never records the fulfillment of that prophecy; the Bible says nothing about his burial. But unless that prediction came true, it’s hard to see how this prediction would have been recorded in the book.


Some Bible predictions are conditional promises. In some places, it sounds like David’s dynasty will last forever. The Babylonian exile put an end to descendants of David on an earthly throne. That detail was conditional, and Judah’s sin revoked the promise. But now, David has a descendant who will sit on the throne of the universe forever, God’s anointed One: Jesus Christ.


Jonah and Amos give us examples that God can reverse himself. God gives Amos 2 visions of judgment that God then revokes. God says through Jonah, “Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Because Nineveh repents, God does not do it. God may have done the same with the predictions of what will happen to Rome in the book of Revelation. Rome repented and turned to Jesus Christ. Rome still fell 100 years later, but the vision of how bad it would be seems to have been conditional. One might compare Revelation’s visions to the visions seen by Scrooge in Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol. But some have reason to believe that these are visions of judgment on a future world kingdom that will one day be fulfilled in full measure.


Over time, various attempts have been made to identify Bible prophecies with specific people, nations, and events. For centuries, scholars have been trying to understand Revelation in terms of either events that were happening in their day, or predictions that had already been fulfilled. This approach was followed by Calvin, Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Newton, John Wesley, and even Charles Spurgeon.


The longer that history goes on, the more events we have to account for in our explanation of what means what. In the past, scholars have claimed that the end of the world was signaled by the Goths, the Arabs, the Turks, and even the French Revolution. Interestingly, everyone seems to see their own day as the last days. It has been said that perhaps God intended it that way in what God inspired the Biblical writers to write, so that all readers will take those warnings as not for some day far in the future, but for their own day.


In Biblical future prophecy, especially in Revelation, we see what happens when we do not have an authoritative key to interpretation, like we do with many of the parables of Jesus, where Jesus himself tells us what his symbols mean. We can tell that many interpretations are wrong, but we do not have a complete guaranteed source of correct interpretations. It always helps when God steps in and gives us meanings we can’t argue with. Thankfully, there are a few places where the Bible spells out what it means in places that are not so obvious. Jesus gives us an authorized answer to what Daniel meant by the “abomination that makes desolate,” and the book of Revelation often interprets its own symbols (if it didn’t, the job would be even harder).


What does a prophet mean when he uses the term “latter days”? When exactly are we talking about? The term “latter” in Hebrew is actually pretty broad, like our English term “later” – it can mean 2 weeks from now, or it can mean 2000 years from now. So the “latter days” in Ezekiel 38 are left entirely unspecified. So are the “last days” in Isaiah 2 (same Hebrew word), and in Daniel (same word). They could be any time, before or after the coming of Christ. Joel uses a related word for the time “afterward” when “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (that prophecy refers to time beginning with the first Pentecost). The Greek adjective eschatos (meaning “last”), as used by the NT apostles, can also refer to any time starting with the coming of Jesus all the way to the end of time.


So what are the major clues the Bible gives us of future events that have yet to take place for us? One of these clues is that there will be a great final period of tribulation or suffering before the return of Christ. It is predicted by Jesus, by Paul, and in the book of Revelation. Sound Bible interpretation will lead us to believe this much. This is doctrine we can count on.


Jesus says in Matthew 24:21, “For then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not happened from the beginning of the world until now, nor shall it by any means happen (again).” Some believe Jesus is speaking of the horrific war leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some of what Jesus has said has come true at least once. Some may come true again in the future.  Some of it is entirely future.  (We’ll talk about this 2 weeks from now, in our program when we take a closer look at the prophecy of Jesus.) The length of this period may be 7 years, or possibly 3½ years. Paul also has some sobering words about the “last days” that sound too much like today for comfort.


The plagues described in the book of Revelation, including mass slaughter and mass destruction, appear to be part of this Great Tribulation. (We’ll talk about these plagues next time, when we study the book of Revelation.) We also see the coming of a great world dictator, who is called the Man of Lawlessness by Paul. He is called the Antichrist in John’s epistles, and he is called the Beast in Revelation, where this leader is pictured as a second Nero. We have had numerous Antichrists through history, including Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and a few Roman emperors, but none of these was the quintessential Antichrist that we must watch for in the future. Will he be able to control everyone on earth? Not necessarily, but his reach will apparently be as sweeping and oppressive as the reach of the Antichrists who have gone before him.


We can also look for this dictator to defile God’s earthly Temple in Jerusalem, a Temple that has not yet been rebuilt (so that’s another event we can watch for, by implication). Paul says that the Man of Lawlessness will sit down in God’s temple and claim to be God. God’s one-and-only Temple has been defiled twice before (in 165 BC, and in 68 AD), and both Jesus and Paul give us good reason to believe God’s temple will be defiled again. Jesus says this will be our ultimate warning sign to flee for our lives from the trouble that is coming.


The apostle Paul also tells us that shortly before the rise of the Man of Lawlessness, there will be a great “apostasy” or “falling away” from the faith. There have been departures from the faith in the past to various degrees, but God’s church has never been extinguished up till now. This Great Apostasy appears to be future, and it will apparently be unprecedented in its scale. (We’ll talk about this in our program on Paul’s prophecy.) Yet we are also told that during this Great Tribulation, so many souls will come to Christ that they’ll be more than anyone can count.


In our program on Paul’s prophecy, we’ll also talk about the Rapture, the great rising of believers to meet Christ in the air, which only Paul tells us about, which we find in only one place in his writings. We have no doubt this event will happen. The question is, Will it happen at the end of the Great Tribulation (will we rise to meet Christ as he appears in the sky to make his final return)? Or will it happen at the beginning of this Great Tribulation, so that believers who are alive at this time would be evacuated and would be spared from the suffering during this period if they are ready? We’ll talk about that debate when we look at Paul’s prophecy.


The Bible also teaches that there will be one great final battle before Christ returns. The book of Revelation says that the armies of the world will be gathered together at a place called Har-Mageddon, “the Mount of Megiddo,” which appears to mean the great valley between Haifa and the Jordan Valley. Who will be there? Near the end of the 7 bowls of wrath, to set the scene for the Battle of Armageddon, Revelation tells us that the Euphrates River will be dried up to prepare the way for “the kings of the East.” John’s audience had barely heard of China; it was known by the Latin names Sirica (meaning “Silkland”) and Sinae. What might lead us to think these kings are from China? Near the end of the 7 Trumpets in Revelation, we are told that 4 evil angels are released at the Euphrates River to slay 1/3 of humankind, accompanied by 200 million troops. There weren’t even 200 million people alive on earth in John’s day, but today, one nation alone could field 200 million troops: the People’s Republic of China.


Who else might be a part of this last great battle? Ezekiel 38 gives us a number of names of nations from the far north who invade Israel in the “latter days” (whenever that means). They include Magog and Gomer, who are identified by ancient sources as the Scythians, from the area we know today as Russia. The Greek version of the OT also translates the word rōsh from this chapter as a place name; from the time of the Greek OT onward, the entire area north of the Black Sea is known by this name Rōs(h), from which we get the name Russia.


How do we know we’re talking about today’s Russians and not the Ukrainians? We don’t, but it appears that somebody from the far north will invade Israel in the “latter days” (whenever that is) led by a leader called Gog, whose army will be destroyed. We’ll talk about this more in depth in our upcoming program on Ezekiel several weeks from now.


Also on that program, we’ll talk about other nations who will join this army from the north when it invades Israel, nations that correspond to modern Iran, Turkey, Sudan, and Libya. That’s a sobering alliance of nations that sounds too much like today’s Middle East for comfort. When I did a paper on Ezekiel 38 during my Ph.D. program, I got a good grade from my professor, but he also razzed me for drawing too close a connection between the names of nations in Ezekiel’s day and nations on the map today. My response was, Why not? Does God have a word for us here about real future people and events, or not?


Yes, we need to be careful not to read too much into God’s word. There’s a lot we don’t know about when and what, and we can easily get it wrong. We must not put words in God’s mouth that God never said. We must be careful not to teach speculation as doctrine. But God has given us fascinating clues to explore about events that have not yet taken place.


Yes, finally, after the great final battle, Jesus will literally return to earth. His return, he says, will be like lightning that crosses the sky – no one can miss it. In Matthew 24:26-27, Jesus says, “Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert, go not forth; behold, he is in the secret chambers, believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west, so shall also be the coming of the Son of Man.” This, we can count on.


What is not clear is what comes next. According to one theory, the dead rise, and the Day of Judgment takes place, followed by new heavens and a new earth. But what do we do with the 1000 year reign of Christ in Revelation 20? A strong case can be made that Jesus sets up an earthly kingdom for a literal 1000 years before the Day of Judgment. A lot of early Christians believed this, but not all of them. An equally strong case can be made that the 1000 year reign of Christ is going on right now, and that the attack by Gog and Magog at the end of this period is the same battle that happens right before Jesus’ great return. We’ll talk about this more next time in our program on Revelation.


Isaiah 2 predicts that in the “last days,” the mountain of the Lord’s house “shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall stream to it… For out of Zion shall come forth the Law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” It sounds like Isaiah is talking about the same place that we know as the Holy City that comes down from God in Revelation 21.


Isaiah talks about 2 Zions. Sometimes we can tell Isaiah is talking about the earthly Zion of his day (Iron Age Jerusalem), while sometimes he’s talking about New Jerusalem from heaven, the future Kingdom where God reigns supreme. But nowhere can we find any convincing reason to believe that Zion in God’s word refers to any latter-day city or social order we will build on earth.


Heaven and hell in God’s word are more than symbols. The descriptions may be forced to use symbolic language (like the languages of computers or quantum physics), but the future destinations are real. The Bible does not tell us all we want to know about them, but the clues God gives us are enough to live by, as long as we’re careful NOT to build any picture of the heavenly world beyond the simple heaven and hell that the Bible teaches us.


We have a LOT to talk about over the next few weeks! I realize it’s dangerous to predict the future on a radio program like this; too much can happen like storms, fires, power outages, and network crashes. But next time on Biblical Words and World (God willing!), we plan to do a deeper look at future prophecy in the book of Revelation, followed by programs on the prophecy of Jesus, the prophecy of Paul, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others. Join us for this entire series on Latter-day Prophecy on Biblical Words and World!