The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

UNDERSTANDING BIBLE PROPHECY

Delivered 9/18/05
Text: Deuteronomy 18:14-22
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Understanding Bible prophecy. The subject comes to us this morning courtesy of some questions raised by one of you concerning some confusing imagery in the book of Daniel. He writes, "Prophecies and the interpretation of prophecies. Could they be just a little more vague? Still, they are fascinating..." Indeed, they are, and for some, they have become immensely profitable as well. A cottage industry has grown up on Christian television presenting prophecy "experts" who are ready to interpret ambiguous passages both on the air, sustained by the financial support of faithful viewers, and in their widely-sold books and videos.

Probably the best-known of these folks is a fellow by the name of Jack Van Impe who, along with his wife Rexella, operates the Jack Van Impe Ministries World Outreach Center, located in Rochester Hills, Michigan. On a typical show, Rexella begins by reporting a recent news event, which ranges from a major headline story to some obscure oddity. Van Impe then interprets the item by quoting some biblical passage, often from Daniel or Revelation or something similar, giving the occurrence a spin that relates it to the coming Rapture or Armageddon or the Second Coming of Christ or all of the above. His interpretations are always based on biblical texts, so for the uninitiated, they sound most authoritative. At the close of every program, Jack extends an invitation to all to accept Jesus Christ and be born again, which is promptly followed by Rexella asking viewers to purchase one of their multitude of books, video tapes, or other media products. Over the years, Van Impe has set many specific years and dates for the return of Jesus, but he has had to continue to adjust his prediction since many of these dates have come and gone. He is currently predicting the second coming will occur in 2018.

The biggest problem I have with his approach is that, with all these scripture texts he quotes, he takes them out of context, and that is always dangerous. An example I have used before: "Cain killed his brother Abel" - Genesis 4. "Go and do likewise" - Luke 10. "What you are about to do, do quickly" - John 13. All scripture, but, frankly, you can prove anything you want using scripture if you are willing to use it incorrectly. Remember this: a text without a context is a pretext. A text without a context is a pretext. Keep that in mind as you listen to Jack Van Impe or any other of these prophecy "experts."

I do not mean to pick on Van Impe because, quite frankly, he is just carrying on a tradition that goes back centuries. Our lesson from Deuteronomy has Moses addressing the Israelite people as they wandered in the wilderness. They are worried about the future and they want some answers. Moses is warning the people about searching for those answers in inappropriate places. He warns about following after folks who practice sorcery or divination. "Sorcerer" in the Old Testament is related to the word for clouds, perhaps referring to discerning events through weather. It is used of those who engage in astrology, using the positions of the stars and planets to foretell events. Divination, another general term for predicting the future, often involves some sort of holy man casting bones or arrows on the ground, so that, depending on how they lie, he can know the future. Moses says do not go there. Instead, "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him."

Truth be told, there does seem to be something in all of us that wants to know the future. Millions of people consult horoscopes, Ouija Boards, fortune tellers, palm readers, attend channeling seminars, or conduct seances. Ever been to Lily Dale?

Joan Cook of Broomfield, Colorado, was a counselor on the Psychic Friends Network for six months. She said she is no psychic, but at $24 an hour it was a great job. She was recommended for the job by her teacher in a counseling class, who said Cook would be free to do traditional counseling on the network. But she quickly discovered that her callers did not want basic, common-sense advice. They wanted supernatural insights.

One night, Joan got a call from Tonya in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Tonya wanted to know whether her husband was going to beat her. Cook tried to convince her to call 9-1-1. She also gave Tonya the names of churches that might provide counseling. The woman's reaction: "I called for a READING. I want my READING!" So, Cook says, she concocted a tarot reading to back up her recommendation. Only when Tonya was thoroughly convinced the advice came from the cards and not just some ordinary individual did she seem inclined to access the free resources already available to her in her own community. And why was Tonya's husband so angry? Tonya had racked up a $5,000 phone bill talking to "psychic" counselors.(1)

Most folks do not go to that extent, but her desire to know the future certainly resonates with us. So we turn to the Bible - that's free. Where we get into difficulty in dealing with biblical prophecy is in expecting it to give something it never intended. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for prophet, nabi, and in the New Testament, the Greek word, prophetes, mean someone who announces or brings a message from God, one who speaks by divine inspiration as the interpreter or spokesperson for God. It might be a message of warning, of promise, or even a prediction of future events. Biblical prophecy is much better understood as FORTHtelling rather than FOREtelling though. The modern equivalent would more be PREACHER than PREDICTOR.

Sometimes the two go together. For example, back in the early '90's, as our nation found itself embroiled with an adversary in the Middle East, an old sermon of mine includes the following:
What will happen to Saddam Hussein?...As proud and arrogant a man as he is, there is an old, old story of which he should take note. It seems some little frogs had just had a harrowing experience down at the swampy meadow, and they came hopping home to report their adventure. "Oh Father," said one of the little frogs, all out of breath, "we have just seen the most terrible monster in all the world. It was enormous with horns on its head and a long tail and hoofs..." "Why child, that was no monster. That was only an ox. He isn't so big! If I really put my mind to it I could make myself big as an ox. Just watch me." So the old frog huffed and puffed and blew himself up. "Was he as big as I am now?" he asked. "Oh, Father, much bigger," cried the little frogs. Again the father frog huffed and puffed and blew himself up, and asked his children if the ox could be as big as that. "Bigger, Father, a great deal bigger," came the chorus of little frogs. "If you blew yourself up until you burst you could not be as big as the monster we saw in the swampy meadow." Provoked by such disparagement of his powers the old frog made one more attempt. He blew and blew and swelled and swelled until something went POP. The old frog had burst. As scripture says, "Pride goeth before destruction." Saddam, he who has ears to hear, let him hear.(2)
Was I going out on much of a limb in "prophesying" problems for Saddam? Not really. No more than anyone in recent years who warned of the dangers to New Orleans in the event of a serious hurricane. Some things are pretty predictable.

Notice something I did NOT do in that sermon. I did not say that Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist referred to in I John or the Beast of Revelation nor any other such thing. And this is where some of our "experts" get into trouble. They take these current individuals or events, overlay them on the biblical material and draw conclusions that are simply not warranted.

People are doing that with Katrina. For example, this was on the internet on September 1st: "A national talk-radio host believes the severity of Hurricane Katrina is clear evidence that civilization is now in the "End Times" described in the Bible. "I don't think there's any doubt," George Noory said this morning on his "Coast to Coast AM" program. "I think we're in it. I really do." While Noory explained he did not mean an imminent end to all life on earth, he referred to the book of Revelation in the New Testament, saying current events are "the beginning of the end."(3)

Actually, he was not even referring to Revelation, he was thinking of some words from Luke's gospel: "There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea."(4) Somehow or other, after every major calamity that the world has encountered - hurricane, earthquake, flood, fire, tsunami - someone has said, whether on the radio or not, that this is the beginning of the end. And so far, everyone of them has been wrong, just like all those who have predicted dates and hours for the Rapture or the Second Coming. And remember the lesson: "You may say to yourselves, 'How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?' If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has NOT spoken."

Speaking of Revelation, we cannot talk about biblical prophecy without dealing with this last book in the New Testament. This one, in particular, has been a goldmine for the so-called "experts" and a challenge to virtually everyone else. Anytime I ask a group what they might like to do for a Bible study, the hands-down request winner is Revelation. In one of the books in my library interpreting Revelation (and I have a lot of them), the author writes,
I have before me the prospectus of a Bible School's correspondence course on "Revelation Revealed" in which it is stated that it requires 175 keys to unlock the mysteries of the book of Revelation. "They are the 175 symbols used by the angel in signifying the book of Revelation to John." There are 81 actors, according to this prospectus, in the Revelation drama; and there are 1440 Thought Units advanced or suggested in the book. Those who enroll for this course and pay the required fees are supplied with a chart which will give "a mental picture of about what time in history any part of Revelation occurred, and what parts of Revelation are doubled and how many times doubled." The course of study also emphasizes certain "startling things in Revelation," among which are the following: How the church looks to dead people; The souls of the dead conversing and what they wear; Two hundred million flying machines described; When the Devil became a member of the church; When and how the Devil was turned out of the church; The Devil's son, grandson, and whole Devil family. There is a list of 35 similarly striking and suggestive titles of subjects which are developed in this course of study. Not all of the dispensational mishandling of the book of Revelation has been so eloquently ignorant as the sample here quoted; and yet the "lunatic fringe" of thinking on the times and seasons and last things of history has always revelled in the Revelation.(5)
The truth is the book of Revelation is not that difficult to understand if you have some basic background. It is written in a unique style called "apocalyptic" which is unfamiliar in our day, but was much better known during the period between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, one of the better known apocalyptic works, the book of Daniel, grew directly out of that era. More about that in a minute. Apocalyptic writing, with all its wild imagery - ten-horned, seven-headed beasts, dragons, wild animals, and so on - functioned as a kind of pictorial narrative about God and justice and answers the inevitable question, namely, "If there is a good God who is in control of things, why doesn't God do something about all the present evil?" The apocalyptic writer's response: God WILL - the story is not over yet. The book of Revelation that we find in our Bibles dealt with a specific situation being faced by the people to whom it was addressed who were suffering persecution under Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century for refusing to participate in Emperor worship. It was meant to comfort and encourage.

Apocalyptic language is symbolic, not literal. Think poetry, not photography. If you get too tied to a literal reading, don't be surprised if you get to heaven and find yourself walking on streets of gold but that you have turned Jesus into a sheep. The words were for inspiration, not information. The cryptic language that our generation might find so confusing was merely to avoid unnecessary risk - monster beasts represent monstrous people, and those who heard these words first would have had no difficulty in interpreting them.

The message of Revelation to that embattled group of first century believers was simply keep the faith; despite all that might lead you to believe otherwise, the Emperor is not ultimately the victor, God is. Those words have comforted the hearts of who knows how many persecuted people down through the centuries. Hans Lilje, a Bishop in the church in Germany during the time of the Nazis, said he never really appreciated the book of Revelation until Hitler came. Perhaps that is why we have so many wacky interpretations of Revelation in our land: we have never had the kind of persecution that those to whom it was addressed underwent, and thus have no clue about how it really speaks. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Back again to the book of Daniel which prompted this exercise this morning. You Bible scholars know that Daniel is divided into two parts and, even though the name of Antiochus Epiphanes never appears in either one, he IS the focus of attention. Antiochus Epiphanes was a Syrian King who came to power about 175 BC. Antiochus sought to force Greek culture, manners, and religion on the Jews. In 168 BC he dared to occupy Jerusalem, enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple where only the High Priest was allowed to go, desecrate the sanctuary by sacrificing pigs on the altar, and dedicated the Temple itself to Jupiter Olympius whose statue he had erected there. That prompted a three-year revolt which ended up winning Jewish independence.

Chapters one through six of Daniel are stories of the triumph of faithfulness of a young man named Daniel and his friends during the time of the exile under Nebuchadnezzar, stories we all learned in Sunday School - Daniel in the lion's den; Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; the story of the handwriting on the wall, and so on. Chapters seven through twelve are written in the apocalyptic "code" (just like Revelation) to foreshadow the eventual downfall of an evil regime headed by...guess who. For those Jews who might have been tempted to deny their heritage for the sake of safety, for those who were feeling anxious about what the future might hold, these were words to keep hope alive.

The other day I was in my car and driving along when I saw the marquee of a local church that said, "Simply Teach the Bible Simply." That sounds good, until you run into material like we have been discussing today. Perhaps it is providential that today is Theological Education Sunday in Presbyterian Churches. For more of what we encounter in scripture than most folks are aware, we need help to understand it, and the help for the future will come from those young men and women who are currently struggling their way through seminary. Pray for them.

Understanding Bible prophecy. Yes, we would dearly love to know the future, but, remember these things as you look for it in the pages of scripture:
  • a text without a context is a pretext;
  • be skeptical of making unwarranted conclusions based on overlaying biblical material with 21st century events and individuals;
  • FORTHtelling more than FOREtelling;
  • and finally the words of the lesson - "You may say to yourselves, 'How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?' If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken."


Understanding Bible prophecy. Tomorrow's headlines today? No. What we do find, from beginning to end, is a living, loving Lord who controls it all, and in these troubled times, that is good news indeed.

He's got you and me, brother, in his hand;
He's got you and me, sister, in his hand;
He's got everybody everywhere in his hand;
He's got the whole world in his hand.


Amen!

1. "Christ the Prophet," http://my.execpc.com/~crnrstn/sermons/deuteronomy_181422.htm

2. From an unpublished sermon entitled, "And Now, the Latest News," preached at St. Paul Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC, 1/24/93

3. http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=46090

4. Luke 21:25

5. Donald Richardson, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, (Atlanta : John Knox Press, 1964), pp. 13-14

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