IT IS DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND the ideas of time without any beginning and space without any end—but they are ideas which are generally accepted nowadays. In my opinion these ideas are at least as difficult to comprehend as the idea of an infinite God Who can foretell the future. So why is this idea not more widely accepted?
The Bible contains many prophecies of events that were future to the time of writing, and even future to our day. These prophecies are not viewed with favour by many modern intellectuals. I would call it prejudice, and when I am explaining the idea of Bible prophecy to friends my first and hardest task is often to open their closed minds in order that they might pay proper attention to the subject.
A Unique Feature
The fact is that Bible prophecy has been recognised by many eminent thinkers.* It has often been noted that the Bible made specific, emphatic and repeated predictions about the nation of Israel, which have been fulfilled so comprehensively and in such detail that it is unreasonable to dismiss them as coincidence. The prophets of Israel did not merely make forecasts which might easily be proved true and which in the absence of a time limit could never be proved false. When they were foretelling the future of their nation they presented negatives as well as positives, sometimes in defiance of all probabilities (for example Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28, Jeremiah 30 and 46 among many other passages).
There are many other prophecies we could mention. The super-power of Egypt was to be defeated and to remain a ‘lowly kingdom’, ruled by strangers, never again to exalt itself among the nations
(Ezekiel 29). The great city of Tyre was to be made like the top of a rock and never to be built again (Ezekiel 26). Mighty Babylon was to be perpetually desolate (Jeremiah 50–51).
So with all the forecasts regarding the world empires of the day, there were extraordinary negatives as well as positives. Human predictions are as likely to be proved wrong as right.
We must not underestimate the importance of these ancient prophecies. The predictions of the Bible are different from human prognostications, not only in the range and extent of their predictions but in their very nature, as they confidently declare that some apparently likely events will never happen, and vice-versa.
Prophecies of Jesus
When people set out to make an impartial investigation of Christianity, it’s strange that they often ignore the subject of prophecy. Yet it is clear from the Bible’s accounts of the early church that it was largely as a result of prophecy that many people were converted. Paul and Apollos appealed to the Old Testament prophecies to prove that Jesus is the Christ (for example Acts 9:20–21 and 18:24–28). The people who heard them were well aware that Jesus had been killed and that now his disciples were claiming that he was alive. They knew that Christian witnesses were willing to endure persecution and death rather than recant their claims. Many people became convinced that the Old Testament prophecies fitted so perfectly into the pattern of what was happening in their own time that the Christians’ claims could not be resisted.
The same argument can carry conviction now. Taking only those broad facts which are admitted even by Christianity’s opponents, it is clear that in the Old Testament—the Bible which was revered and guarded by the religious leaders who rejected Jesus and had him killed—there is a mass of prophecy which comes to us with compelling logic: the time when the Messiah would appear, the work he would perform, the fact that he would be cut off, and that after this the city and temple would be desolate (Daniel 9, Isaiah 61); his death as a sacrifice (Isaiah 53), his resurrection (Psalm 16); his rejection by the Jews and the call of salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jews) (Isaiah 49); and finally his appearance in glory when Gentile rulers will have the surprise of their lives (Isaiah 52:15) and the Jews will be the subject of their greatest deliverance and their greatest humiliation (Zechariah
12:10–14). All these and many more details are contained in prophecy.
Prophecies By Jesus
There is an idea that the teachings of Jesus will be spread throughout the world by his followers, and eventually bring about the Kingdom of God by reforming people’s hearts. This is taught by many churches, who see themselves as the nucleus of that Kingdom. But this idea was repudiated by Jesus himself:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’ (Matthew 10:34–36).
The history of the spread of Christianity has proved this prophecy true. The Bible teaches that the Kingdom of God will be imposed on humankind by God, not brought about by a gradual reformation.
In John 16:2 Jesus told his disciples that a time would come when those who persecuted and killed them would think that they did God a service. This came true in the First Century (for example
Acts 7), and it has come true down through the centuries as the established church has persecuted dissenting minorities.
Perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ prophecies is that which is known as the Olivet Prophecy. It is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. There Jesus clearly warned that the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed, the Jews scattered, and the city of Jerusalem trodden down by Gentiles until their time was fulfilled. Persecution of disciples would continue, there would be wars and rumours of wars, nation rising up against nation until the last days of the Gentile age. And there are details in this prophecy which can give us confidence that we ourselves are living in those last days.
The Imminence of Christ’s Return
True followers of Jesus Christ have always lived in expectation of his return—as he told them to (Matthew 24:44). They have not always expected it to be imminent. For example there were many Protestants during the Reformation in the 16th Century who certainly believed in Christ’s return, but the books they wrote attest that they did not expect it to happen in their day. It was only as recently as the early 19th Century that there arose a general expectation amongst believers that Christ’s return was near at hand. Why was this? Here are some reasons.
Signs In the World
In answer to his disciples’ question as to what should be the sign of his coming and of the end of the age, Jesus said:
There will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25–26).
Has there ever been an age when the world’s nations have been in such a universal state of perplexity as this, and when people’s hearts are so fearful about the future?
Signs In the Middle East
Joseph Mede was a Fellow of Christ’s Church College in Cambridge, England. He wrote a book The Key to the Revelation, which was published in English in 1643.
The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible. It begins by stating its purpose: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants—things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1). It describes world events which will lead up to and surround the return of Christ. It is a difficult book which is full of symbols, but the symbols can be interpreted by comparing them with other parts of the Bible. In chapter 16 there is a series of seven bowls containing the wrath of God which lead up to the day of judgement on the world. Mede concluded that the sixth bowl represented a period of wars and unrest, along with the decline of the Turkish Ottoman empire. This would pave the way for the re-establishment of the nation of Israel (which was within Ottoman territory at the time) and for the final battle which is called Armageddon (verses 12–16). Note that in the 16th Century the Ottoman empire was at its height and dominating the Middle East; there had been no nation of Israel for 15 centuries and there was no prospect at all of it being re-established.
John Thomas was a 19th Century doctor, who studied his Bible and achieved a grasp of its message. Others were persuaded by his teaching, and that was the origin of the group who are called Christadelphians. In 1849 Thomas published a book Elpis Israel (‘the Hope of Israel’), in which he expressed his conviction that he was living in ‘the latter days’. He agreed with Mede’s interpretation of the bowls of Revelation, and he believed that the Jews would return to the land of Israel in two phases. This conclusion was based on prophecies such as Ezekiel 37 in which the rebirth of the nation happens in stages. Thomas expected that initially the Jews would establish a largely secular state, which would have little regard for their God. Then will come Armageddon, which will usher in the return of Christ, and will be followed by another wave of Jews from all over the world converging on the land in acknowledgement of their king.
At the time he wrote this book the Ottoman empire was alive and well, there was no sign of a Jewish move on the land of Israel, and Europe was enjoying a period of prolonged peace. These Bible prophecies seemed very far-fetched. But within a hundred years the world had descended into a state of unprecedented unrest, the Ottoman empire had disintegrated and the first phase of the Jews’ return had happened!
It was terrible that Jesus should be crucified; that Jerusalem should be destroyed shortly thereafter; that Jesus’ disciples should be so regularly persecuted through the following centuries. It is terrible that the modern world should be in the state it is. But it is necessary to consider them, because all these things were foretold. It was to disciples in our own age that Jesus said those words which have been in front of the world for two millennia:
Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man (Luke 21:36).
The signs of the last days are of such importance because they lead the way to the tremendous changes yet to come.
When I am talking to friends about this subject I sometimes feel as though we are in a darkened room. Outside is the light of the sun, but the blinds and curtains are firmly closed. But if a shaft of sunlight can break through and capture my friend’s attention, they may just be sufficiently intrigued to pull up the blinds and draw the curtains, and the glorious sunlight will flood in. I know from experience that once closed minds begin to open and defensive scepticism begins to give way, the picture soon becomes too clear for it to be resisted any longer. Do you prefer the darkened room, or are you prepared to fling open the curtains and let in the sunshine?