By James L. Morrisson
When our Lord Jesus Christ came to earth 2,000 years ago, the religious leaders of the Jews were locked into a particular concept of how Messiah would appear and what he would be like. They looked for a warrior-king who would rescue his people Israel from the rule of the Romans. This fit some of the Old Testament prophecies. But when Jesus came as the suffering servant whom Isaiah had predicted they did not recognize him and could not accept him.
The result is expressed in some of the saddest verses in Scripture. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). "I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" (Matthew 21:43). "What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain" (Romans 11:7). (Scriptures are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.)
As we seem to be approaching the Second Coming of Jesus Christ we need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake. We need to be careful that we do not get so locked into one concept of how things will happen that we are unable to see, or to accept, anything that does not fit our preconceived concept. God's thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). His Scriptures tell us all we need to know. But it is also true that his judgments are unsearchable and his paths beyond tracing out (Romans 11:33) The events of the end times may not come in the way we expect them to come. God is sovereign. He will not violate his word, but he is not bound to act in accordance with a particular human interpretation of his word. We cannot limit God by our theology.
There is a second danger also. If God does not act in accordance with our expectations, we may find that we have put such faith in our expectations that we face a crisis of faith. "God, this is not happening in the way you said it would." This may cause some to lose faith in Scripture, and even in God. Some may become bitter at God. Jesus has warned us that in the end times there will be a great falling away. "Many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people...the love of most will grow cold but he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:10-13). One reason for this falling away may be that some will feel betrayed because events in the end times are not working out in the way they were led to expect .When Jesus speaks of a turning away from the faith he is speaking of something extremely serious.
Jesus said, "Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me" (Matthew 11:6 KJV) The NIV has "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (He was speaking about John the Baptist, who apparently was troubled because Jesus was not acting like the Messiah he expected.) Will we be in danger of being "offended", of "falling away", if the end times events do not come in the way we expect?
While on earth we see imperfectly and understand in part (1 Corinthians 13:12). I believe this is just as true of our understanding of Scripture as it is of anything else. We sometimes tend to place at least as much trust in a particular church doctrine or theological teaching as we do in the words of Scripture. I believe this can become a form of idolatry. God's Scripture is true. Man's interpretation of Scripture is always fallible.
The end-time prophecies in Scripture are fascinating. It is good to study them and try to understand them. My purpose in this paper, however, is to suggest that we need to be careful not to get so locked into one particular view as to what will happen that we either (a) fail to see and understand what is actually happening, or (b) face a crisis of faith when what happens does not meet our expectations. We need to be ready for God to surprise us, if he chooses to.
I shall illustrate this theme with a two specific examples. There could be others.
When is Christ Coming?
In recent years we have seen books in which the authors, based on detailed study of Scripture, have "proved" to their own satisfaction, and that of some of their readers, that Christ would come on a certain date, or during a certain year. The problem is that he didn't. Some people even sold property, gave up jobs, moved to new locations, etc. to be ready for an event that did not happen. Doubtless there will be other such attempts from time to time, with no greater success.
Jesus told us that "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Matthew 24:36). "The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Matthew 24:44). My sense is that God does not want us to know when Christ will come. He wants us to be ready for him to come one minute from now, or several years, decades and perhaps even centuries from now. He wants us to be constantly ready. I suggest that we should not try to know something that God apparently does not want us to know. Jesus said he would come when we do not expect him. If we try to specify a time for his coming. are we not going contrary to his word?
When Will the Rapture of Believers Come?
Scripture speaks of a "rapture" when believers will be taken up into heaven to join Christ. It also speaks of a "great tribulation" - a time when things on earth will be far worse than they have ever been. Much has been written about whether the rapture will come before, or during, or after, the "great tribulation." Those advocating each viewpoint are sincere Christians who find support for their position in Scripture.
When all is said and done, I think we have to admit that we do not really know with certainty what the sequence of events will be. And I think we do not need to know. I don't see how the knowledge of this issue affects what we should be doing now to know God more fully, to be transformed into his likeness, to bring others into the Kingdom of God, and to make disciples.
The danger I see is that if we confidently expect to be taken up out of the earth before the "great tribulation" comes, and then find ourselves undergoing the kind of circumstances that Jesus was describing, we may feel that we have been betrayed. (Or perhaps we will doubt that we were ever really saved.) Because our trust was in one particular interpretation of Scripture, we may not be equipped to handle it if things turn out differently than we were led to expect. The result could be despair, a sense that God has forsaken us or betrayed us, loss of faith in Scripture, loss of faith in God, anger and bitterness at God, hopelessness, "falling away", and much else.
I suggest that it is the course of wisdom in this area to say to people: "This is how I think it will be but I'm not sure. None of us really knows. We need to be prepared for whatever will happen and to know that, no matter what happens, 'God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear...' (Psalm 46:1-2)." God is bigger than any trouble we may face and he can bring us through it.
In the days of Daniel, the three young men said, "The God we serve is able to save us from [the blazing furnace] , and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not... we will not serve your gods" (Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis added). If God lifts us out of the world before the "great tribulation" comes that will be wonderful. But "even if he does not", we can continue to have faith in him and his protection (see Job 13:15). The God who told his people that they can pass through water and not drown, and through fire and not be burned (Isaiah 43:1-3) is able to protect us from whatever may come. Whatever the circumstances we can learn to be content (Philippians 4:11) and to give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18). No matter what happens we can be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).
The great tribulation will involve huge numbers of people. But there is a suffering church right now, and the First Century Christians endured heavy persecution. The God who is able to empower his servants to endure years of torture in a Chinese prison, or heavy persecution in many Islamic countries, will, if need be, empower us to endure even the great tribulation.
2002 by James