Chapter 17: Tying up loose ends
Early on in this project, I came to a view I ought to produce sixteen chapters, albeit unequal in length, to cover all the ground (and there is a lot of it) needing to be covered (to an at least acceptable and satisfactory level), and yet there remains more that could be said, some of which should be said. The reason I have written as I have, is that my approach to writing has veered toward exegesis and avoiding letting rip with my views on certain subjects. Having reached the end of my book, or so I had thought, and all set for a thorough proof reading and then the challenging task (at least for this little known author) of getting it published and distributed, I found that a number of big topics were still swirling around in my mind, pertinent to my subject, which I will use a single word in each case to identify, and which I will follow up in this chapter, by way of elaboration:
While there are many topics I think important, which views I am happy to share with any who are interested, concerning each one of the ten I have identified here (and I daresay if I were to cogitate, more could be added to the list), these I would argue are pertinent to main theme of this book, which is to do with helping toward better understanding the prophets of the Bible and relating this to the times we live in. Besides which, this may be my last chance to write a book before I go to the way of all humankind. At least, here is my chance to set the record straight etc., for these are subjects that not only have a bearing our study of the prophets but provides some of the impetus for doing this study. I have set a limit of two pages to cover each topic, even though much more could be usefully said.
While readers might not always agree with me, if they take time to read and reflect, they may find these thoughts helpful. Our goal, and I hope here readers will agree, should be to get to know God better, appreciate Him more and become better equipped and more effective in His service, because in the final analysis, it is doing that and glorifying the Lord what truly matters.
While nearing in to my allocated three score and ten years is no guarantee that I have the needed wisdom to pass on to the next generation, there is nevertheless a lot I would like to say that I think will be of benefit, on a wide range of topics, among which is “read your Bible”. I have been privileged that from an early age I have been exposed to those who knew and loved the Bible. I remember as a 7 or 8-year-old being taught in Sunday School the chorus: “The best book to read is the Bible. The best book to read is the Bible. If you read it every day, it will help you on your way. The best book to read is the Bible”. Later in my teens, I became associated with the Plymouth Brethren. The PBs were far from perfect but one thing they helped instill into me was a love of the Bible and a desire to understand what it had to say (which is a lot). While I have often failed to apply what I know, ever since that time it seemed to me a matter of great importance to know what the Bible really says and then apply it to how I live my life.
Fifty years on, it is still the best book; I still read it every day and it still helps me on my way. While many acknowledge I know the Bible well, I lament I do not know it well enough. Even so, every day when I do study the Bible, even those sections I know very well, I discover new things. It is why if I were to imagine that I am in a room of young people and exhorting them on things they should attend to, near the top of that list is diligently study the Bible, but always with humility. I confess, I prefer to use the KJV, although if I were starting again it might be the ESV. The reasons are I love the language, I am familiar with that translation, I remember specific verses in the KJV, it is still a good translation despite its archaic language, and deep down I believe the manuscripts used by the translators may be more accurate than the ones used for most modern versions.
What matters more is actually reading the Bible, and this is a far more important matter than arguing the relative merits of different translations. We need to do so carefully, meditate prayerfully, comparing wisely scripture with scripture and apply practically what we learn. Often it is worth reading it in more than one translation as this often gives fresh insights into the meaning, and bear in mind some are better at conveying God’s thoughts and some God’s feelings. While some sections may seem more relevant than others (I generally suggest start with the Gospels), all sixty-six books, Genesis to Revelation, warrant study to get full understanding. In the most unlikely sections, there is gold to be found.
“It is the story of how God was seeking a bride for his son. Each book is different from every other book. I am trying to give you the keys for you to unlock the key itself”. That is how the late David Pawson introduced his “Unlocking the Bible” talks (often referred to in preparing this book). At the beginning of his book, “A Pathway into the Bible” (also referred to while preparing this book), Stuart Kimber quotes William Tyndale: “I marvel greatly, dearly beloved in Christ, that any man would ever contend or speak against having the scripture available in every language, for every man”. Tyndale played an important part in seeing this desire realized and it is worth pausing to think that he considered it important enough to do so, such that in the end it the cost of his life.
I have found “Biblegateway” and “Biblestudytools” provide some great online resources: reading the Bible in any number of versions, and listening to it being read. The truth is when it comes to resources (online and those in traditional book form) to help us in our study the Bible, we are spoiled for choice. I have named some used in my “prophets” studies in the “Acknowledgements” section of this book and there is so much more, including excellent aids to help us in regular Bible study. We are without excuse. The Bible is to be read, with open hearts and minds and with an enquiring spirit. It is all a matter of discipline and application.
Undoubtedly, we live in a time when people are largely ignorant of the contents of the Bible, and sadly we note the consequences. It is evident that the teachings of the Bible have often been distorted, including by church leaders, who we would like to think should know better, yet sadly don’t. It sometimes seems ignorance is a virtue and worldly wisdom promoted. Those with knowledge often disagree on interpretation and application. While knowledge of the Bible is no guarantee against embracing false teaching or living in a way that is at odds with how the God of the Bible would have us live, too often ignorance of the Bible is a factor for people NOT living in the way God would have us live.
I am not going to persuade those reading this what is the right interpretation and I recognize even the best of scholars and saints differ at times, and sometimes the challenge is differentiating on what is essential or important and what isn’t, but I am going to encourage you to diligently search the scriptures for yourself. Many metaphors can be used to describe the Word of God that is given in the Bible: gold, hammer, fire, light, sword etc., and the very images these conjure up should enthuse us to want to study. The most important reason is it will lead us to the knowledge needed for having an all-important personal relationship with the God of the Bible and knowing the way which we ought to be going.
If you want a goal, why not read the Bible through at least once every year, and when possible commit sections of it to memory, maybe a verse each day? The Bible is the only set of books I can say is divinely inspired and, while there will be parts we will struggle with, it covers the whole plethora of human experience from how humankind began to how it will end, the meaning of life, a guide to living in a turbulent world and source of true wisdom and precious promises.
“What is truth” was the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, although it was doubtful he was that anxious to find the answer, for shortly after he condemned this innocent man to death and released a notorious murderer in his stead, in order to placate the crowd. I get the impression that many try to claim the moral high ground when saying they are beholden to truth and it seems to me this includes outright liars who try to get one over the genuine seekers after the truth. Putting aside the notion of relative truth (what is true for you may not be for me etc.) or alternative truths for a moment, all of us fall short, even if we are not like Pilate and allow expediency to override nobler goals. We are subject to our own prejudices and axioms and even if we try to see other viewpoints, and try to find out the relevant facts, we often fall short. There is also a tendency to confuse opinion with truth, and given opinions differ, it follows they can’t all be true.
Jesus claimed He is the Truth; it was said of Him, He was full of Truth; He spoke about the truth setting us free. Of all people, Christians should be those who place truth very high on their list of priorities, if only because that is what the Bible tells us to do. Before I go on about something that is bugging me and one of the key triggers behind writing this book, which was trying to figure out what was going on in the world so I can work out how best respond, and be one that leads people toward truth and away from error, I should make some personal statements. Truth has been a principle driving forces behind my community activism and Christian service. It is not an academic exercise, because dealing with the real world, and the messy situations I am confronted with all the time, means I don’t always have the luxury to pontificate over philosophical niceties.
I do not set myself up as a paragon of virtue, and admit sometimes to being a hypocrite. After all, if we are serious about truth, it should affect all our relationships, especially our family and those close to us, and govern how we live. Truth can be found in many places, besides the Bible. I am intrigued by the sign inscribed over the Cavendish Laboratories, Cambridge: “the works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein”, Psalm 111v2, suggesting scientific endeavour is one way of discovering truth; one might add many other fields of human endeavour. The last point is truth needs to be coupled with things like grace, love and humility (as it was with Jesus) and a realization that there is a lot we don’t know and lots we can not be sure of.
If asked who my sources of inspirations are in the Bible, I would be spoiled for choice but if pressed I might say Jeremiah, and add: the sons of Issachar, of who it was written “were men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1Chronicles 12:32). It seems quite obvious that people like that are rarities, yet if one takes Jesus words “watch and pray” seriously then this is something we need to do. Sadly, such is the state of the church, it is hard to identify modern day sons of Issachar as too often leaders do not address the issues of the times as they ought, have their own agendas that too often are not God’s and, rather than taking a lead, follow the ways of the world. Jesus warning in these last days, that the very elect will be deceived, should be taken seriously.
Over fifty years, I have seen a shift on things that bother Christians. Back in the day: whether or not to take the Bible literally, free will or predestination, the gifts of the Spirit, believers or infant baptism, creation or evolution, pre-, post- or a-millenialism, social activism or evangelism, Bible versions, women ministry, church government, which church to join, were all issues keenly debated among Christians, and to a lesser extent still are. Besides a drift from some sort of consensus, there is a new list, items I don’t recall being discussed much back in the day. Brexit, Islam, Race, LBGT issues, climate change, immigration, globalism, popularism, socialism, have all become contentious issues, including among Christians. If I can be more specific: whether or not Donald Trump is good for the world and the whys and wherefores of Covid-19 and responses, are two issues for the present time. Should we take a view and what should that view be?
And there is another of the elephants in the room – how much store do we give to conspiracy theories, for the answer to that may determine one’s approach? Another change, at least for me (but I know there are many others) is that fifty years ago we trusted mainstream media, especially the quality press and even more so the BBC; we trusted the government, even when not our choice; to a significant extent and, in general, we trusted academia and authority figures. That is no longer the case. The temptation is to look elsewhere; conspiracy theories is one such place. I am not going to be drawn much further into this, other than to say I do believe that evil forces conspire and many have a spiritual dimension.
I am inclined to question everything and counsel people to do the same, and resist cultural dumb down. I am still learning when to speak and when to keep silent, and being careful not to get side tracked from things that matter. For this, wisdom is needed. We are privileged, unlike our forefathers, of being allowed (at least in the UK, but for how much longer as restrictions get imposed) of saying what we believe to be true. While there is lots we don’t know, we have access to a lot more information. As for conspiracy theories, these may be false or unproven and yet over time some have been proven true and often more credible than the official narrative. My own watchword, besides watch and pray (and trust and obey), is to test and weigh. If I have a parting word on the matter, it is: “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” Proverbs 23:23.
When I refer to the Church (as opposed to churches), I usually do not have in mind buildings or clubs, but rather those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ with sincere hearts. Sadly, many “churchy” people are not real Christians and do not belong to the Church. The prayer Jesus prayed just before he was arrested and put to death – “I pray for them … that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17v9, 21) – has yet to be fully realised. My hope is to see entirely different people become as one. I’ve seen glimpses but the actuality will be awesome and the breakthroughs that will follow will be astounding. While there is a role for Israel, the Church is God’s chosen instrument to bless the world, despite Hebrew prophets seeing such as but a shadow. Sometime in the future (Revelation 19 relates) there will be the marriage between Christ and the Church followed the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God. To serve in the community is important, and to do so with likeminded people. My hope that the Church take a lead in this as well as going about its business of mission and discipling, has at best been part realised. My heart is the Church to fulfil her God given potential and role to live as salt and light in the world. This should be intrinsically linked with spreading the Christian message throughout the whole world and making disciples who wholeheartedly follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
Throughout my Christian life, I have heard well-meaning Christians exhort other Christians to join a local church. Usually they had in mind one or other Christian fellowship, without which one becomes like a coal removed from a blazing fire. Having reflected on which church is best, I know none are perfect and, if I found one that is, I should leave it. It is a place for sinners to be saved and grow in grace, not put on “holy” airs. I see good and bad in most fellowships and sadly signs of apostacy becoming all too evident. The notion of a remnant meeting in people’s homes is a real one. I have seen many Christians give up on “church”, sometimes because of backsliding but also disappointed at the corruption they see in church. My advice is go where God is honoured and is working, where you are welcome and can contribute, including encouraging others, but don’t expect too much (no one is perfect), although you will want to find a spiritual home. Let your approach to others be winsome, with denominational labels being of secondary importance. For many, the church they end up in is as a result of accident or circumstance, or where they can best contribute or feel comfortable or are drawn closer to God.
While I have a sense of trepidation as to what might happen in the near future, given some of the unsavoury happenings going on in all sorts of situations and in the light of pressure on and persecution of Christian people the world over, I am confident too that it will turn out glorious in the end, and that God’s perfect plan will be enacted. Right now, I sense opposition toward Christians, especially the more earnest types, and that should cause us to turn even more so to God in trust and dependence. For those in the UK, while we might not be physically attacked, there can be insidious pressure to conform to anti-Christian ideology and pay the price if we don’t. While I can look at the church in my own country with a tinge of sadness, e.g. dwindling congregations, compromise and lack of spiritual life and effectiveness in mission (although I see change afoot), we see the reverse in some countries, especially the less well off, where churches are experiencing real growth. My sadness is that my own country has rejected God and is paying the price in terms of calamities that have befallen us, including natural disasters, inept leaders, lack of cohesion and direction. When trying to apply the message of the Hebrew prophets, it should be with the thought “judgment begins in the house of God”. In words of Charles Wesley’s hymn: “Oh, that in me the sacred fire might now begin to glow, burn up the dross of base desire … and sanctify the whole!”
To individual Christians, I would say: you are a member of the Church if you are a follower of Christ. This includes being a unique and essential part of His Body, which is joined to other body parts. You are part of the Bride of Christ which has been betrothed to the Bridegroom, who is Christ. You are also part of a great Building that is inhabited by the Spirit of God and founded on Christ the cornerstone. I would add that in order to follow these ideas through you need to try and relate to other Christians, typically through one or other local church, but not to exclude the other groupings. There is always room for individuals with a good heart, who don’t just adopt the status quo, but we are most effectively employed when we relate to other Christians. I would urge church leaders to encourage such folk (including weak and wavering); accept your congregation is not the local church, but rather part of it, and the Lord works in mysterious ways.
I am reminded of the old adage: “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”. Jesus word to his followers is to “love one another” John 13:24. For me, the necessary things start with recognizing the person of Christ (perfect humanity and divinity combined), the need to preach faith and repentance and the historical truth that “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” 2Corinthians 15:3,4. We who follow Jesus should be loving God and our neighbor, and also “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” Jude 1:3. Much more can be said about Church – just don’t give up on it! Like Israel of old and still to happen, the Church (not church) is God’s instrument to bring about his great purposes in the world and “this is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” Ephesians 5:32.
A good deal of this book is about ancient Israel and an Israel in a time that is yet to come. The Bible closes with Israel under Roman occupation, the last big event being the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Following this was occupation by the Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and the British. It was not until 1948, the modern state of Israel was formed, which was a fulfilment of the Balfour declaration in 1917 and, for the first time since the Babylonian exile, the Jewish people had autonomous control over some of the land that had been promised to Abraham. Since 1948, there have been several wars (all of which Israel have won) and conflicts over the land and, while Israel has managed to maintain sovereignty over the land given to it and even gain new territory, there are many formidable powers at work that would seek to bring about its demise.
The Palestinian question and allowing them self-government over some of that land remains a huge one that has occupied many a great and well-meaning mind. One area of contention is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; another is Israel’s security. Despite many a peace plan having been hatched and attempted, a fully satisfactory solution for all parties has not been managed. The return of the Jews in any great number to Israel is a modern occurrence, although many still remain scattered around the world. Few Jews believe in Jesus as their Messiah. The history of the Jewish people since the Exile has seen them, in the main, seeking to live peacefully with their hosts, and often prospering, while maintaining their distinctiveness. History has also seen many atrocities being perpetrated toward the Jews. Anti-Semitism has always been an issue and still is.
Much more could be said about modern Israel, which is never far from the news. As interesting as that subject is, we don’t want to stray too far from the subject of this book or enter into avoidable controversy, given among sound Christians there are big differences in opinions. It is quite likely only a minority believe there remains a special purpose for Israel in God’s plans. Even without the benefit of biblical hindsight, it is quite clear that Israel continues to play an important and pivotal role on the world stage, including in numerous complex conflicts in the Middle East. One senses with the benefit of hindsight, there will be much more. The following are, in my opinion, some of the more important points to consider:
- Israel and the Church are distinct, although one can be a Jew and belong to the Church. The Church has not replaced Israel. Faith and obedience and the principles of saving grace govern them all.
- While a special covenant (like a marriage) has been made with both Israel and the Church, the merging and culmination of which is in the future.
- The promise made to Abraham that through his descendant Jacob (Israel), would arise a great nation, has not been revoked.
- It was always God’s intention, through Israel, for the world to be blessed.
- The preservation of the nation of Israel and re-emergence of its homeland, might be regarded as miraculous but also is Israel’s divine destiny.
- There are many biblical prophecies yet to be fulfilled relating to Israel, both regarding the land and its people.
- There is a small number of Jews who have accepted Yeshua as their Messiah. There will be a future turning to Him by a large section of them.
- There will be days of great blessing for Jews, preceded by more suffering.
- God holds nations accountable for their mistreatment of Jews, of which there have been many instances. He will bless those who bless Israel.
- The fact that one third (six million) of the Jewish people were exterminated during the Nazi era (1933-1945) must never be forgotten.
- Some of Israel’s woes are as a result of its disobedience and rebellion and this may also be a means used by God to bring Israel to repentance.
- Looking at history, while some Christians have acted sympathetically toward Jews, others haven’t and this must be a cause of deep regret.
- There will be a millennial age under the rule of Israel’s Messiah, which will be its golden age. The babe of Bethlehem will reign as king in Jerusalem.
- Proclaiming the gospel to the Jew (first) and then the Gentiles, is a matter of primary importance and we should not ignore the need to do so.
- While the Church should seek ways to effectively proclaim the gospel of repentance and of the grace of God toward the Jews, it should at the same time be offering friendship and providing support wherever it can.
- We should uphold the need for social justice toward the Arab. Sadly, due to complexities, politics, prejudices, antagonism, it remains a challenge.
- While some Christians are as much a Zionist as the most ardent among those who are Jewish, many see no place for the Jews in God’s plans today.
- As far as the scriptures are concerned, peace and prosperity and other blessings in the land are linked to national repentance.
- Some Christians see Israel as doing no wrong and others see them as doing no right. The truth (as it often is) lies somewhere in-between.
- The development of Israel to become an advanced technological state with incredibly talented people, from humble beginnings, is truly amazing.
- With few exceptions, Israel’s closest neighbours are not particularly well disposed and sometimes hostile to the existence of the State of Israel.
- The “Palestinian question” has long occupied great and noble minds but is an important one that ought not be ignored or dealt with prejudicially.
- The Jewish people retain a special place in God’s heart and purposes.
- “And so all Israel shall be saved … There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” Romans 11:26,27
According to Wikipedia: “the rapture is an eschatological concept of a minority of Christians, particularly within branches of American evangelicalism, consisting of an end-time event when all Christian believers who are alive, along with resurrected believers, will rise “in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” 1Thessalonians 4:17 … Differing viewpoints exist about the exact timing of the rapture and whether Christ’s return will occur in one event or two. Pretribulationism distinguishes the rapture from the second coming of Jesus Christ to earth. This view holds that the rapture will precede the seven-year Tribulation, which will culminate in Christ’s second coming and be followed by a thousand-year Messianic Kingdom. Adherents of this perspective are referred to as premillennial dispensationalists” and goes onto say “Dispensationalism is a religious interpretive system and metanarrative for the Bible. It considers biblical history as divided by God into dispensations, defined periods or ages to which God has allotted distinctive administrative principles”.
While Wikipedia is hardly an authoritative source for theological definitions, I do not wish to disagree with the above statements but would want to elaborate. As far as orthodox Christian belief goes, Christ is coming again which, noting the focus of this book, whose coming was what the Hebrew prophets looked forward to. When Jesus ascended into heaven, we read: “And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” Acts 1:10,11. The Nicene Creed reminds us: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”. While Bible believing Christians will agree on the Second Coming, as Wikipedia reminds us, only a minority believe in the rapture that is to take place, typically before the Tribulation period which is discussed in Revelation 6-18 begins, but some argue at any time before Christ returns in Revelation 19.
During the course of my writing this book, I have tried not to get sidetracked by going down paths that are controversial and unprofitable. Besides which, it is a huge subject and I am merely able to give headlines. I am conscious there will be those reading this book who will regard themselves as “pre-tribulation rapture, dispensational, pre-millennialist” and those who aren’t. The only part of that label I fully subscribe to is “pre-millennialist”, for reasons discussed in this book. A plain understanding of end time prophecy leads me that conclusion. I am also of the view Israel has not been replaced by the Church and regret that this has not been the dominant view throughout 2000 years of church history.
While I am a mild dispensationalist (I am not going down that rabbit hole to explain what and why that is), I understand when it comes to the Jewish enigma (a people chosen by God, yet presently rejecting their Messiah, Jesus) why with the Rapture, and the focus of attention turned once again on the Jews (with the Christians having left the scene), the question is begged, how things will change, and dispensationalism may help provide answers. The Jews will come into their own and turn to their Messiah. It becomes a question for Bible students to marry the teachings of the Hebrew prophets with that of Revelation. But as I have said all along, other than opening up these scriptures and now recognizing the different positions of the Church and Israel, more study is required on how it ends up, and it may well be more needs to happen in the world before it becomes very clear.
We read at the end of the Tribulation: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn … And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south” Zechariah 12:10, 14:4.
As a young Christian, in a Brethren Assembly, it would be true to say that the majority view was: “pre-tribulation rapture, dispensational, pre-millennialist”, but because I have done what I encourage readers to do and take on the Berean mindset and check everything out, I refuse to accept any position unless I can be convinced by the scriptures. Moreover, I find the thought that Christians escape any tribulation when Jesus tells us to expect it, goes counter to what He taught, what many of my brethren experience and our calling to bless our communities – the need to get involved, yet are taken from Earth when we are needed most?
Regarding when Jesus is coming again, even though Jesus told us nearly 2000 years ago: “surely I come quickly” Revelation 22:20, I am happy to accept it can be anytime (just as Jesus said would be the case, Matthew 24:36) and the main thing for us is that we are ready for His return. Whether His return comes in two stages (secret rapture and openly in glory), I won’t be drawn. What I do know, and in the light of the various yet to be fulfilled prophecies picked up in the course of our studies, is when Jesus does come, all will be. The future is a glorious one for the Church and believing Israel but a fearful one for those who reject Him.
If I hadn’t set a one-word limit to these headings, I might have come up with “social justice”, which in the day this is written is a huge subject and is one that has contributed to churches both keeping on the rails and going off the rails. But “community” is ok too, given that twenty years ago I changed my job spec. to “community activist”, which my first Google hit tells me is “a member of a community who is voluntarily working with others from that community to. achieve common aims (Delivering Change) Someone who takes individual action or action with others in a community, in a planned way”. Actually, I tried to make a living out of it, with limited success, but these days, as a retired person, it is nearly all voluntary. My story from going from being a secondary school teacher to computer consultant to “gospel preaching, community activist, watchman on the wall” is told in my book Outside the Camp, now overdue for an update.
One of the lessons drawn from studying the prophets was finding not only were they concerned with pure worship but also with social justice. It is a salutary lesson for Christians, both on the right and on the left (if I dare use those terms), that God is concerned with all these aspects of life and not to claim the spiritual high ground when righteously indignant concerning our brethren who see things differently, as often happens as this author can testify, with the scars to prove it. There is a certain irony in laying claim to the title “Community Activist” given my church background in most of the 54 years I have been a Christian, is Plymouth Brethren, which renowned church historian, David Bebbington, once described as an “Adventist Sect”, and might I add with some justification.
A story indelibly fixed on my mind concerns Frank Newman, brother of the recently sainted John Newman. He was there in the PB in its early years and had a lot to do with the PB leading light, John Nelson Darby, who did more than many to popularize dispensationalism and the pre-tribulation rapture. Newman once commented to the effect that if one were to follow Darby’s teaching there was not much point committing the next 30 years to becoming the next LaPlace (great French mathematician) if the Lord is going to return in the next 29. Not getting involved in activities to improve the wider (outside the church) community has often been a feature of PBism. However, that is a bit of a caricature, as Brethren have often excelled at being good neighbours and been responsible for setting up such worthy community enterprises as orphanages, hospitals and schools.
But it does go to show that Christians across the ecclesiological spectrum do take widely different views on involvement in community activity and, putting aside factors like spiritual fervour, may have something to do with whether one is post millennialist and beholden to improve society prior to Christ’s coming or a pre millennialist that might see such attempts as futile and rather focus on living pure Christian lives, doing good when obvious and urging those who don’t believe to flee from the wrath to come. It is simplistic but it was the prospect of making a difference and finding out what is really meant by loving thy neighbour, in the light of societal inequalities and the prospect of meeting real need that requires taking a wider view, combining doing what we can and challenging social injustice, along with the spiritual that recognizes the big issue is sin and being saved from it, that was the spur going down the route I did, with varying success.
I wrote in Chapter 16 “Brexit, Trump, Islam, race, LBGT, climate change, immigration, globalism, popularism, socialism, have become contentious issues” and in my experience have led to deep division among Christians when one would like to suggest these should come into the agreeing to disagree bracket. If is true that we can, and many do, operate in our own bubble, when trying to do good outside the strict confines on one’s local church activity, but as I tried to point out that while there is much to be said about addressing real needs, going about it, especially when helping the many rather than the few, is not without pitfalls, and sometimes it touches on these subjects, pits us against those who are hostile to the Christian gospel and forces us to come to a view as to where the truth lies, as well as ask when to sacrifice “Christian” principles to become more inclusive?
These are among many issues I have not dealt with here, as these do not fit into the remit of this book, although I hope to revisit these in the new edition of Outside the Camp. I suspect there will be some / many interested in doing social justice that question whether taking an interest in Prophets of the Bible is an unhelpful distraction? They might rather learn how best to get involved in their communities (outside the church). There is no simple answer here, and I can only share my own experience and urge things like making wise choices. As for what cause one picks up, it will be an individual one depending on various factors.
If there is one myth that studying the Prophets should have dispelled is that while the Bible looks forward to a God in control Millennium (OT) and New Heaven and New Earth (NT), He is not disinterested in the present earth or lets us off the hook when it comes to doing our part here and now. Besides using this unusual time to write this Book and, mindful of personal limitations and circumstances, my main community activism interest is connected with helping the homeless, and more often than not with those of all beliefs and none, mindful there are many other aspects of our society where we can make a difference. In fact, the needs are limitless and as well as the need for wisdom there is a need for balance. It is not a matter of one thing or another. The fact “community” is listed as one of ten subjects covered in this chapter, is indicative of why all these things matter.
The mainstream Christian view is there is only one God but three persons in the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Much of this book is about God the Father and some of it is about God the Son, and this is because this is the way Christians view the Messiah, whose coming was keenly anticipated by many of the prophets. Not much has been said about God the Holy Spirit, other than by implication or in passing, but it was He (the Holy Spirit is a person) who inspired prophets to prophesy. Another area touched upon is the spiritual world (as opposed to the natural). In our trawl through the prophets, we find this world played important parts, in the experiences of Enoch, Daniel and Zechariah, to name but three. “Spirit” is a further loose end meriting “tying up” and again another huge subject.
I suspect that part of our propensity toward imbalance is deciding wrongly where the balance lies between the natural and the spiritual. While as Christians, we reject the notion the only real world is natural, we may, having recognised we are spiritual beings, be in danger of ignoring the importance of the natural. When I embarked on this project, which was mainly about the Old Testament, I decided I needed to view the prophetic scriptures through a Hebrew lens. I was mindful of the observation, possibly simplistic, of some who had been on this journey, that the church over 2000 years has been predominantly influenced by Greek thought that had a tendency to despise the natural, whereas it should have been more influenced by Hebrew thought that recognised the importance of the natural and one simple example in this book is how I have adopted such an approach is in contentious areas of biblical interpretation, where I tended toward the natural.
But if we ignore the spiritual dimension, we miss out. Regarding the three prophet examples given above, Enoch predicted the coming of the Lord with His saints in the light of a mighty hiatus involving spiritual beings; Daniel found in his intense praying and patient waiting, the big factor was a battle going on behind the scenes involving the angels; and as for Zechariah, when he considered Joshua’s wretched mental state, it was a lot to do with Satan acting behind the scenes. The New Testament is clear that our warfare is more spiritual than it is natural and many things, often perplexing, that happen in the natural is because of the spiritual. One phrase I used to hear a lot in my youth is one can be too heavenly minded to be earthly good. The aim ought to be so heavenly minded (because thereby we see things so much clearer) that we can do earthly good. One interpretation concerning the reasons for many schisms and heresies in 2000 years of church history is often it is due to not getting the right balance between recognising and appreciating the natural and spiritual worlds.
When we go back to the start of the Bible, we read “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” Genesis 1:1, “the Spirit of God moved” (1:2) and “Let us make man in our image” (1:26), we can see the Holy Spirit there at the outset. Concerning the Holy Spirit, besides inspiring the prophets, we find He is active throughout the Old Testament in many different ways. In the New, Jesus told His disciples: “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” John 14:6, which Christians usually take as having been fulfilled 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, as detailed in Acts 2.
As a young Christian, the issue of being / needing to be baptised in the Holy Spirit was a contentious one (although many other controversial issues have since taken its place), and like many I was caught in the middle, without knowing enough to come to a fully thought out view. It forced Christians into one of two opposing camps: “haves” and “have nots”. The “haves” might have seen themselves as spiritually superior and the “have nots” might have gone into self-justification mode to explain they were good Christians despite having not been “zonked” as on the Day of Pentecost. This is, admittedly, somewhat of a caricature, but to this day I fail to align with either camp. I refuse to take the “cessationalist” position that such visitations of the Holy Spirit do not occur and gifts, including prophecy, are no longer available today, any more than take a view Christians that have not had a “Pentecostal” type experience have NOT been baptised in the Holy Spirit.
There is no question that the Holy Spirit is an important ingredient of the New Covenant (discussed in Chapter 15) and is needed to live fruitful and effective lives in the Lord’s service, as well as meriting a series of Bible studies. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (which happened at His baptism) was an essential ingredient when it came to power and authority in Jesus ministry. We are commanded to be filled and to go on one being filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), not to quench the Holy Spirit (1Thessalonians 5:19) and not to grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). It is the Holy Spirit that will lead us into all truth (John 16:30) and since, as we discussed earlier, truth should be the mantra under which we engage in the world, having the Holy Spirit is vitally important.
Our focus, besides the prophets of the Bible, is on prophecy, which is identified as one of the gifts of the Spirit, as listed in 1Corinthians 12:7-11. We are told: “follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy” (14:1) and is mentioned to reinforce a point. But let us end: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” Romans 8:6-8.
Peter wrote: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” 2Peter 1:20,21. He also wrote “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” 1Peter 1:15. Christian Apologetics is that discipline that seeks to defend the “truths”, encapsulated in the Christian faith, against objections, and it can take many forms. The apologetic type we are concerned with here is that to do with prophecy and how prophecy can have precise and literal fulfillment, years, sometimes millennia, after the prophecies were originally made.
In order not to become sidetracked from the main purpose behind writing this book, I have avoided thus far going down the Christian apologetics route, even when tempted to do so, mindful of discussion made in learned commentaries concerning those prophets that uttered prophecies that often were fulfilled long after they were supposed to have written them, as to whether this was possible, UNLESS God had inspired them. Questions of authorship and date aside, strong arguments can be made that the record shows what the prophet prophesied at the time was not added later, for the question is begged: if the prophecies were genuine; now prove it? In a Web article “Fulfilled Prophecy: Evidence for the Reliability of the Bible by Hugh Ross – August 22, 2003” the argument is made: “Unique among all books ever written, the Bible accurately foretells specific events-in detail-many years, sometimes centuries, before they occur. Approximately 2,500 prophecies appear in the pages of the Bible, about 2,000 of which already have been fulfilled to the letter—no errors. The remaining 500 or so reach into the future and may be seen unfolding as days go by.”
We are spoiled for choice but I would cite the following examples Ross made:
- The prophet Daniel proclaimed that Israel’s long-awaited Messiah would begin his public ministry 483 years after the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem (Daniel 9:25-26). He further predicted that the Messiah would be “cut off,” which is what happened when Jesus died.
- In approximately 700 BC, Micah named the tiny village of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Israel’s Messiah (Micah 5:2).
- Zechariah declared that the Messiah would be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, according to Jewish law, and this money would be used to buy a burial ground for Jerusalem’s poor foreigners (Zechariah 11:12-13).
- Some 400 years before crucifixion was invented, David and Zechariah described the Messiah’s death in words that perfectly depict that mode of execution. Further, they said that the body would be pierced and that none of the bones would be broken, contrary to customary procedure in cases of crucifixion (Psalm 22 and 34:20; Zechariah 12:10).
- Isaiah foretold that a conqueror named Cyrus would destroy seemingly impregnable Babylon and subdue Egypt along with most of the rest of the known world. Cyrus would decide to let the Jewish exiles in his territory go free without any payment of ransom (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1; and 45:13). Isaiah made this prophecy 150 years before Cyrus was born,
- Mighty Babylon, 196 miles square, was enclosed not only by a moat, but also by a double wall 330 feet high, each part 90 feet thick. It was said by unanimous popular opinion to be indestructible, yet two Bible prophets declared its doom (which happened when the city of Babylon was sacked just as the prophets said by the Persian invaders). These prophets further claimed that the ruins would be avoided by travelers, that the city would never again be inhabited, and that its stones would not even be moved for use as building material (Isaiah 13:17-22 and Jeremiah 51:26, 43).
- One unnamed prophet said a future king of Judah, named Josiah, would take the bones of all the occultic priests (priests of the “high places”) of King Jeroboam and burn them on Jeroboam’s altar (1 Kings 13:2 and 2 Kings 23:15-18). This event occurred 300 years after it was foretold.
Ross gives a further six solid examples of prophesies being precisely fulfilled, centuries after the prophesies were made and, if we were to continue our search of the Internet, several other significant examples could be added to the list. I would refer back to the comment I made in Chapter 12 regarding Daniel 11: it “is about what happens after Alexander the Great dies and the Greek empire is divided among his four generals, and both chapters remarkably details events that have come and gone. One commentator has identified 135 specific prophecies fulfilled in Daniel 11”. Another “favourite” is the prophecy made by Ezekiel (Chapter 26), specifically, and other prophets, concerning Tyre. Tyre was considered impregnable, priding itself that it could not be conquered, just as were Nineveh (discussed under Nahum) and Edom (discussed under Obadiah). Yet years after the prophecies were made, those cities fell (to Alexander the Great in Tyre’s case), and prophecies were fulfilled with remarkable precision.
We can go on and I have not even got on to the numerous Old Testament types, such as the Lamb, e.g. in Exodus 12 being a type of Christ and as prophesied in Isaiah 53 (another example of prophecy being precisely fulfilled). While the subject of prophecy apologetics can be usefully further explored, there is enough here to more than suggest that the Bible record is more than merely credible.
Sacrificing animals to atone for sin was an important feature throughout the Bible. We see animal sacrifices being made by Abel, Noah and Abraham and there are many more places in the OT where animal sacrifices were carried out. A poignant example in the life of Abraham was being told by God to sacrifice his son and just before doing the act, God stopped him and made available a ram instead, pointing to the time when God was not only prepared to sacrifice His Son but did.
Sacrificing a lamb and applying the blood on their doors was an essential part of the Passover ritual that meant the firstborn in the houses of those who did so was spared: “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you” Exodus 12:13. Sacrifice became a central feature of Tabernacle (Temple) worship. Applying the blood of sacrificed bulls and goats was an essential part of the what took place on the Day of Atonement, whereby the peoples’ sins could be atoned for along with the different sacrifices that could be made, although not all involved animal sacrifice.
Making animal sacrifices was a central aspect of OT Law, whereby sinful man could be reconciled with a holy God. But it was David who understood what God really wanted: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” Psalm 51:17. The words of Samuel are also pertinent “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” 1Samuel 1:15:22. And so are the words of Hosea: “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” Hosea 6:6. And yet blood sacrifices were incredibly important.
We are told in the Old Testament: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” Leviticus 17:11. We are reminded in the New: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” Hebrews 9:22. The central purpose of Jesus ministry is encapsulated in His own words: “For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” Mark 10:45. In predicting His own death, Jesus was merely confirming what was spoken concerning Him by the prophet Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth … Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” Isaiah 53:7,10.
While “blood” and specifically shedding the blood of innocent animals might seem out of place in book about the prophets (if it been about priests, whose job included offering sacrificing animals, we might better understand maybe), yet the big picture, which each prophet had only parts of, could only be seen if we take into account the significance of blood and of atoning sacrifices. Going back to the Passover feast, it was when celebrating this with his disciples that Jesus could say: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” Matthew 26:28 and telling His disciples in future to remember Him in this way, knowing for Him the next step would be betrayal and ending up being crucified, where He really did shed his blood for the remission of sins.
The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the significance of what took place when Jesus died on the cross and how this achieved far more than what took place in the OT Law: “Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” Hebrews 9:12-15.
Before turning to our next section, about the Gospel, with its central tenet being Christ dying on a cross and shedding His blood for our sin, it is worth considering what the last of our “Prophets of the Bible” said about blood, applying firstly to Christ washing us from our sins in his own blood, secondly how the Lamb that had been slain, now on the Throne, had redeemed us by His blood and was worthy, thirdly how those coming out of the great tribulation had washed their robes in His blood and fourthly, overcoming by the blood of the Lamb.
- “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (1:5)
- “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (5:9)
- “These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14)
- “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (12:11)
“It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim, this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: “The person in right standing before God by trusting him really lives.” Romans 1:16 (The Message).
One secular definition is: “the word gospel comes from the Old English god meaning “good” and spel meaning “news, a story.” In Christianity, the term “good news” refers to the story of Jesus Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection”. Proclaiming the gospel (whether by word or deeds) is a most important activity. Jesus commanded His disciples: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” Matthew 28:16-20.
As far as Paul writing to the Romans goes, whether a Jew, supposedly following the Law, or a Gentile, guided by conscience, we all fall short of God’s standard, subject to God’s condemnation and unable to save ourselves: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” 3:23. But here comes the good news: “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” 5:6-8 and “for the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” 6:23.
As far as the Hebrew prophets go, many looked forward to Israel’s deliverer and had insights into his character and ministry. When the risen Christ walked along the Emmaus Road, talking with two disconsolate wannabe followers of their hoped for Messiah, confounded at the way his life had ended, he remonstrated with them: “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” Luke 24:25-27. Even though the prophets understanding were incomplete, we could do as Jesus did and preach the gospel from what the prophets said, something Philip did when explaining Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch and leading him to Christ (Acts 8).
Some have said that the gospel is like our ABC: A: admit you are a sinner, B: believe in Christ to save you and C: confess Christ before others. The plain fact is some of the simplest of folk get and welcome this message and some of the most sophisticated fail to get and welcome it. I am not alone in recollecting the first Bible verse I learned by heart as a child: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”, and yes the gospel message is simple and sublime, but once it is embraced it has profound consequences for the rest of our lives.
Like the Hebrew prophets, we would be remiss if we just focused on God’s love and mercy and neglected His righteousness and holiness. We who follow Jesus are told to “put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” Ephesians 4:24. Jesus made it clear: “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” Luke 9:23. After Paul eruditely sets out the gospel message in Romans 1-8, in 9-16 after discussing the conundrum of unbelieving Jews to who that message was initially directed, he turned to our response: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” 12:1-2.
As one of my Sunday School choruses so sublimely put it: “Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span At Calvary! Mercy there was great, and grace was free; Pardon there was multiplied to me; There my burdened soul found liberty, At Calvary”. That gulf could not be spanned by human endeavor, only through what Jesus accomplished at the Cross and rising from the dead – the very heart of the gospel message. As Paul told the church at Corinth: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” 1Corinthians 15:3:4.
The prophets were strongest when looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming, not as the man of Calvary sent to atone for our sins, but as the glorious Lord of lords, to reign forever. Yet Paul wrote: “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” Philippians 2:6-11. It is our privilege, not just to open up the prophetic scriptures, but to tell people of the one who the prophets foretold.