Saturday, March 19, 2011

No One Knows the Hour: Warnings Against Apocalyptic Predictions

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”
(Mark 13:32-37 ESV)

Over countless centuries seemingly innumerable Christians have used verses such as “There will be wars and rumors of wars...” (Matthew 24:6 and Mark 13:7) as a basis for interpreting current events of their times to indicate that the end is at hand. In every generation of the Church there have been those who have looked at the evil around them and supposed that it has never been worse. They point to the so called “glory days” of the church, lost values, etc. and begin to extrapolate that their days are quite a bit more evil than the better, more obedient years that have gone before and begin to state that because of this the judgment of God is drawing close.

What is worse than this, however, are those who state, apart from all of these facts, that God has revealed to them dates and times regarding the end of the world. A quick google search with the terms “failed end time predictions” reveals a multitude of people who have stated dates and times of either the end of the world or major catastrophes. One such site lists over 200 people who have predicted the end of the world and/or major catastrophes who were wrong. Many of these “prophets” go on to justify their failed predictions by flipping the script and saying that they misinterpreted God and that He only meant that something else that happened that year was the real thing God meant would happen. If they don’t resort to trying to backtrack on their story to not look like fools, they just change their predicted date and continue in their delusions.

Here is one such story from the 1700’s during the Great Awakening when many people truly thought that, because of so many people being born again, that the end was coming and the millennium was being ushered in:

“They also began to make much use of visions and dreams, and in 1763 [George] Bell went so far as to prophesy the end of the world and to set the date: February 28 of that year. The prediction was given wide publicity, and when it failed, the fiasco--since it was some of [John] Wesley’s people who were involved--caused embarrassment to Wesley himself.”

A footnote to this section also states the following:

“Thomas Maxfield says that Wesley was especially embarrassed by Bell’s prophecy since he himself had made a similar mistake. In 1682 Edmund Halley had calculated (or so it was believed) that the comet he had discovered would return toward the earth in 1759. As that date approached there was great excitement and many speculated that the comet would strike the earth. Maxfield says that Wesley preached ‘...from one end of the land to the other’ on the forthcoming catastrophe and prophesied the comet’s effect as ‘...scorching and burning up all the Produce of the Earth, &c, &c. Then, lastly, executing its grand Commission on the Globe itself, causing the Stars to fall from Heaven...’”

Now it must be noted here that John Wesley, the great revival preacher, had a practice of casting lots to “confirm” a Word from the Lord. On several occasions Wesley erred deeply with this practice of confirming visions and such that he thought he was receiving from the Lord. There were many others at the time who were predicting the destruction of England because of England’s “slump into godlessness” from it’s former “godly state.” Again this is much in err, as England had never had a stable history wherein there was holiness about the land, but as in all ages and in all places the land was filled with evil as the church struggled to proclaim the gospel.

Such is the case, also, with the current state of America. There has never been a period in American history where one (who reads history enough) could point and say “those were the glory days.” Even the first Great Awakening under Whitefield was soon washed away shortly after his death. Knowledgeable of this long history of reformations not lasting, the deist Benjamin Franklin even writes to George Whitefield stating “O that some method could be found to make them lasting! He who discovers that, will, in my opinion, deserve more, ten thousand times, than the inventor of longitude.”

The point is that good times never last in the history of the Church. Even during the “good times” there is distinct and widespread evil so much so that whatever good had been accomplished, in a short period of time it is undone. So all that is to say that looking at our current times and stating “Surely these are the end times, look at how far we have fallen!” is a serious error and presumption and is no doubt caused by demonic deception.

Careless people who do not know the Word and have not studied it well have been drawn away by so called visions and messages from God throughout all of history and have declared various passages of Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation and etc. to be fulfilled by certain current events that were unfolding at the time. But God does not clearly mean one thing in His Word then contradict Himself by a word or vision from the Holy Spirit that breathed His Word!

In D.A. Carson’s indispensable book on biblical interpretation entitled “Exegetical Fallacies” he states:

“Critical exegesis [biblical interpretation, drawing out the meaning from the text as opposed to putting it in] is opposed to merely personal opinions, appeals to blind authority (the interpreters or anyone else’s), arbitrary interpretations, and speculative opinions. This is not to deny that spiritual things are spiritually discerned, or to argue that piety is irrelevant; it is to say rather that not even piety and the gift of the Holy Spirit guarantee infallible interpretations. When two equally godly [which I, Joe, would personally add must be judged according to a biblical definition of godly] interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious even to the most spiritual...that they cannot both be right.”

There are many today, such as Harold Camping who predicts the return of Christ on May 21st, that have determined through their own interpretive methods, using biblical “data” that come to conclusions that are completely contrary to others who perhaps use more comprehensive and logical methods. Camping uses one statement in the Bible such as “a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day” and built an entire system that led to his prediction of Christ’s return date. Other more serious scholars (as Camping has no formal training at all; an unfortunate trend among predictors of the end times) who have more knowledge of biblical symbols, metaphor, literary devices, etc. would state vehemently that Camping’s prediction is complete and utter nonsense.

But Camping falls within a different “camp” (pun intended) than many predictors of end-time events. Most “doomsdayer’s” claim some special revelation from God. Sometimes this involved stating that God told or showed them something (a vision, dream or “impression”) and other times this special revelation comes in the form of God supposedly revealing the meaning of a text that was previously unknown to generations of Christians. The most common place for such people to find special revelation from the Holy Spirit is in Revelation. The interpretations that people have claimed to have from the Holy Spirit about the diverse imagery of Revelation are innumerable. Most of these people never question whether or not their interpretations or prophecies are from the Spirit and (as Wesley would do) perceived they had some divine, unquestionable confirmation. Of course a well versed and cautious Christian would know that Satan is a master of deception, whom the Bible says poses as an angel of light and knows very well that Christians seek “confirmation” for “words from the Lord.” In a book entitled “Conversations with God” a man even claims to have actually seen and talked with God and received supposed confirmations for his visions, but what he says God told him is in complete contradiction to the infallible Word of God.

As a footnote to D.A. Carson’s above statement, where he says that two contradicting interpretations of a passage can’t be right, he tells this compelling story:

“Almost twenty years ago I rode in a car with a fellow believer who relayed to me what the Lord had “told” him that morning in his quiet time. He had been reading the KJV of Matthew and I perceived that not only had he misunderstood the archaic English, but also that the KJV at that place had unwittingly misrepresented the Greek text. I gently suggested there might be another way to understand the passage and summarized what I thought the passage was saying. The brother dismissed my view as impossible on the grounds that the Holy Spirit, who does not lie, had told him the truth on this matter. Being young and bold, I pressed on with my explanation of grammar, context, and translation, but was brushed off by a reference to 1 Cor. 2:10b-15: spiritual things must be spiritually discerned--which left little doubt about my status. Genuinely intrigued, I asked this brother what he would say if I put forward my interpretation, not on the basis of grammar and text, but on the basis that the Lord himself had given me the interpretation I was advancing. He was silent a long time, and then concluded, ‘I guess that would mean the Spirit says the Bible means different things to different people.”

It is a tricky and dangerous thing to say “Thus saith the Lord” and in my time among Pentecostal’s, Assemblies of God churches and other more “charismatic” churches I have heard many people put forth prophecies of all kinds that they said the Holy Spirit revealed to them and confirmed in such and such a way. Unfortunately, none of their predictions came to pass. Some of these predictions, in fact, were aimed straight at me and did not come to pass. In his book “Counterfeit Revival” Hank Hannegraff catalogues a plethora of such “revelations” and “confirmations” that never came to pass as well, some from very prominent televangelsists and others from normal, everyday people.

When these people are challenged, it is usually a pointless endeavor. They typically respond by being very sure of themselves, state that you are being used by the Devil to try to get them to disobey or doubt God, and can’t for one moment think they are being deceived because if they allow that they think God will punish them for their doubt. I have learned the best thing for these people is to let them be, let their predictions fail then be there for them after such a failure to try to show them where they were in error.

The Bible is serious about false prophets and yet tells us not to despise prophecy. In all cases it tells us to test things and to test it by the Word. Isaiah says “to the Word and to the testimony, if they do not speak accordingly to this word it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20). In the following verses from Isaiah (21-22), and in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and Ezekiel 13:1-9, 22 serious consequences are stated for uttering words on behalf of the Lord that do not come from the Lord. Those who think they are messengers from God should know these passages well and be filled with a great deal of reverential fear on account of them.

A wise Biblical teacher once said that we must interpret the unclear parts of Scripture in light of the clear parts. The Bible is very clear that we will not know the day or the hour on which Christ will return and thus anyone wishing to make predictions relating to the end times should keep their mind focused on the clear parts of the Bible--the proclamation of the gospel, making disciples of all men and calling all to repentance from around the world. Because we do not know the hour, we labor hard because we do not know when our Master will return. Those who have an unhealthy interest in end times or claim to have visions from God typically get so obsessed that they begin to neglect these clear commands of God in the Bible. Though they begin to call out “repent” they do not truly preach the gospel in its glorious entirety and typically never tell people how they need to be born again, but simply that they should stop doing overt sins like drinking, swearing, watching certain movies, etc. and confess Jesus is Lord and they will be saved from the wrath to come. This lulls people into a false acceptance of Christianity.

I do say with the beloved John, writer of Revelation, “Come Lord Jesus, come” but I think it is a serious, distracting error to state that one has word from the Lord that contradicts God’s clear word that no one will know when the end will come, not even the angels. I also think, from a biblical perspective and from experience, that any people who claim to have words from the Lord are typically being deceived by demons and Satan posing as an angel of light. I pray God will show them the deception they have fallen into once their false visions and predictions have failed them and that they will then come to a deeper knowledge of God’s infallible, clear and sealed Word that never fails--The Bible.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Life and Soul of True Religion

Lately much of my personal study time has consisted of studying the Great Awakening of the 1700’s. During this time many souls were awakened to the glory, majesty and beauty of God as well as the horrible, wretched and completely vile state of their sinful souls. Now, if the combination of these two compounds did not create an explosion large enough to shake the souls of men; the addition of the good news that such a holy, perfect, beautiful, and yet inexplicably offended God had sent His Son, Jesus, to forgive, and redeem such miserable creatures, deserving of wrath was the catalyst that resulted in a blast of emotions and change as had not been seen since the time of the Apostles.

Men of all ranks, genders, class and age began to sing themes of “Amazing Grace” before the song was even written, and such was their joy that many of the clergy of the time began to criticize the move of God’s Spirit as being the product of animal passions and mere enthusiasm. Though it is quite true that there was an ungodly, counterfeit faction at the time that delighted in fever-pitched, manufactured emotions rather than the legitimate affections and sorrow that are the natural fallout of such an explosion of God’s majesty, man’s sin and God’s grace; this was but a small faction.

Nevertheless the whole movement was often held in disrepute by many of the ministers of the time. In response to such criticism of the raw affection and sorrow that was bubbling up both in America and across the pond in much of the UK, Jonathan Edwards wrote a work entitled “Thoughts on the Revival, &c.” In it he logically, scripturally and passionately (as such was his style) defends such affections in the following manner:

“There are many exercises of the affections that are very flashy, and little to be depended on; and oftentimes a great deal appertains to them, or rather is the effect of them, that has its seat in animal nature, and is very much owing to the constitution and frame of the body; and that which sometimes more especially obtains the name of passion, is nothing solid or substantial. But it is false philosophy to suppose this to be the case with all exercises of affection in the soul, or with all great and high affections; and false divinity to suppose that religious affections do not appertain to the substance and essence of Christianity. On the contrary, it seems to me that the very life and soul of all true religion consists in them.”

Simply put, Edwards is agreeing that not all affections or passions are the product of holy things, but all things that are holy are founded and grounded in great affections--love. Edwards continues with thorough and thunderous argumentation:

“Charity, or divine love, is in Scripture represented as the sum of all of all religion of the heart; but this is only a holy affection. And therefore, in proportion as this is firmly fixed in the soul, and raised to a great height, the more eminent a person is in holiness. Divine love or charity is represented as the sum of all the religion of heaven, and that wherein mainly the religion of the church in its most perfect state on earth shall consist, when knowledge, and tongues, and prophesying shall cease; and therefore the higher this holy affection is raised in the church of God, or in a gracious soul, the more excellent and perfect is the state of the church, or in a particular soul.

If we take the Scriptures for our rule, then the greater and higher our exercise of love to God, delight and complacency in him, desires and longings after him, delight in his children, love to mankind, brokenness of heart, abhorrence of sin, self-abhorrence for it; the more we have of the peace of God which passeth all understanding; and joy in the Holy Ghost, unspeakable and full of glory: the higher our admiring thoughts of God, exulting and glorifying him; so much the higher is Christ’s religion, or that virtue which he and his apostles taught, raised in the soul.

The absence of such great affections and violent movings of love for God, the church and those who do not know him is the cause of much stagnancy in the church. As a result, many seek to stoke the flames of revival with increased theology on one side and so called “miracles” on the other. Both of these are attempting to accomplish something similar--a revelation of God. Unfortunately, however, what ends up happening is that the affections of many are fixated on theology and “miracles” and not God himself.

A true revelation of God must excite the affections of the soul towards God, producing satisfaction in him and him alone. When the gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a mind for revealing the beauty, majesty and holiness of God (displayed especially in Christ’s work of bringing man back into relationship with such ineffable splendor through the forgiveness and pardon of sin) then it is most certainly aimed at and will produce great affection as God works through us to reveal that glory. Words such as “beauty,” and “majesty” are words particularly aimed at invoking awe-filled affection.

If the church desires to see an awakening again in our time, it must understand that the souls of sleeping, dead men and women will only rise so far as our own affections for God rise. The life and soul of our entire faith, and the proclamation of it consists of an unfathomable love for and satisfaction in God through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Spirit.