11. God’s Plan for the Future
Over the past few years it has been my privilege to minister in a number of prisons in Texas and elsewhere through the auspices of Prison Fellowship. This organization facilitates the ministry of “free world” Christians to prison inmates.
One means of Prison Fellowship’s ministry is In-Prison Seminars. It has been my joy to teach a number of these seminars. Following the teaching, a team of Christian volunteers works together to listen and to share in small discussion groups. Volunteers come from a broad spectrum of denominations and theological positions. Our focus must be on the fundamental truths we hold in common, not on the areas of our differences. Prison Fellowship requires all volunteers to set aside their distinctives and focus on the essential truths of the gospel. I heartily agree and find ministry in this environment personally enriching and exciting. It also reminds me that many of my distinctive views are non-fundamental. Jesus called these “gnats” (as opposed to “camels” ( see Matthew 23:24).
Our study of God’s plan for the future requires this same commitment to the fundamentals while avoiding speculative and controversial matters.129 In the study of biblical prophecy, much is not revealed. And that which is revealed has produced different interpretations. Our goal in this study is to survey the major events which make up the plan of God for the future as revealed in the Bible. We will then consider the implications for our attitudes and actions.
Setting the Scene for Our Study
Why do Christians feel so strongly about prophecy? Why do they differ so strongly with their fellow-believers? Allow me to suggest some of the reasons Christians may differ with one another over prophecy and some of the fundamental issues underlying these differences.
(1) It is right that Christians feel strongly about prophecy, because it is so important to Christian faith and practice. The Bible contains a great deal of prophecy, and the study of biblical prophecy is a matter of great importance. God’s plans for the future and His promised blessings are the basis for our hope and for our conduct. Prophecy is the fuel for the Christian’s faith and hope and the motivation for our endurance, even in the midst of great adversity or affliction. People feel strongly about the things which matter most, and prophecy is rightly perceived to be a subject of great import to all men. Since our eternal destiny is inter-twined with the prophecies of the Word of God, we should have strong feelings about prophecy.
(2) Evangelical preachers and teachers teach their eschatological130 beliefs dogmatically and with conviction, while attacking the positions held by others as biblically unacceptable and unscholarly. Some who strongly hold their own views sincerely find the positions held by others unacceptable. A number of teachers privately admit that one or more opposing positions may have some merit, but they will not say so from the pulpit. They seem to feel compelled to teach everything with the same conviction and dogmatism. They do not clearly distinguish between the “gnats” and the “camels” of Scripture. As a result, those who listen to such teaching conclude that prophecy is not as mysterious as it is. This suggests that anyone with his eyes open and a reasonable intelligence should see prophecy clearly--anyone who sees prophecy differently has failed in some way.
(3) Our prophetic views are often motivated by our own ambitions, desires, or even sinful lusts. Sinful men never approach the Bible with an open mind but with hearts which are deceitful beyond our own comprehension. Our sinful biases distort our perception of biblical teaching concerning the future, because we look at it as “our” future. What we want often influences what we believe.
(4) Differences in interpretation of biblical prophecy are often the result of different premises in approaching the subject. Some Christians who expect to suffer believe that Christians will suffer as the purposes and program of God are fulfilled. Other Christians who believe that suffering is incompatible with Christianity, or at least undesirable, view prophecy in a way that excludes Christians from tribulation. How literally we take prophecy has a great bearing on our interpretation of prophecy. The definitions we give to key prophetic terms and phrases 131 significantly impacts our prophetic views.
Our doctrinal presuppositions dictate which views we find intolerable and unacceptable. Prophetic interpretations which collide with our doctrinal presuppositions132 are not even given their “day in court.” We do not even consider interpretations which we have ruled unbiblical in principle by means of our presuppositions.
(5) Differences exist between sincere Christians over matters of prophecy because our knowledge of prophecy is partial, and our understanding is imperfect.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).
I imagine that when our Lord returns and Christians are united in heaven, those who have written books on prophecy will find some excuse to sneak into the “library of heaven” and remove their book from the shelf. I am convinced that when all of God’s promises concerning the future are fulfilled, no one will be patting himself on the back for having figured it all out.
Jesus Christ came the first time to pay the price for sin, to die in the sinner’s place, so that men might escape the horrors of hell and live eternally in the presence of God. The Lord Jesus Christ is coming again to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. These are truths which all Christians hold in common with great conviction. Christians disagree over the details concerning the sequence of events associated with His second coming. We must recognize that no one understands God’s plan for the future fully--by divine design. Scriptural revelation concerning the second coming has been given to produce faith, hope and love. As Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 13, love should govern our attitudes and actions toward our fellow-Christians with whom we differ concerning future events.
What the Bible Teaches About Prophecy
The Bible itself is the best teacher on the subject of prophecy. Not only does God reveal His plans for the future by means of biblical prophecy, He also uses His Word to teach us how to approach and apply biblical prophecy. We shall lay out the major events yet to take place revealed in biblical prophecy and show how the future should change our perspective. We must first look to the Bible to gain a biblical perspective of prophecy. Permit me to summarize my understanding of prophecy as taught or implied by Scripture.
(1) Biblical prophecy is certain. The Bible contains certain promises of blessing and warnings of judgment which are contingent upon man’s response to God’s commands.133 But the promises of God associated with His covenant are certain.134 A reflection of the certainty of prophecy is seen in the use of the “prophetic perfect” in the Old Testament. Future events are often not expressed by using the future tense (“I will . . .”), but with the past tense (“I have . . .”). When God thus promises to do something, it is as good as done.135
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
(2) Biblical prophecy is often contradicted by false prophets and their false prophecies.136 God’s prophets speak for God, and they speak from His perspective. They speak of His plans, purposes, and promises. They call men to repent and to obey God’s commandments. False prophets speak from their own lusts and desires. They appeal to men on the basis of fleshly desires and appetites. Where there is one who speaks to men for God, in God’s name, there are those who will speak to men as though from God, but who deny and dispute God’s revealed Word. Biblical prophecy calls upon sinful men to submit and conform to the standards of a holy God. False prophecy seeks to adapt and conform God to man’s standards.
(3) Biblical prophecy is perplexing. Some prophecy is perplexing because of its nature. Not all prophecy is in the form of a declaration, made by one who was recognized as a prophet of God. Some prophecies are found in the experiences of others. Joseph’s suffering at the hand of his brothers seems very prophetic of the suffering of our Lord although never specifically called prophecy. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah was prophetic of future judgment, and thus we find frequent reference to this historical incident because of its prophetic message. Jonah’s rebellion against God in seeking to forsake his calling, and God’s use of him as an unwilling servant, is a picture of Israel and her relationship to God. David’s sufferings as Israel’s kings are prophetic of Christ’s sufferings (see Psalm 22). Hosea acted out Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to His people.
Prophecy is often perplexing because it seems to exceed the limits of language. The prophets spoke of events which would take place long after their death. How would an ancient prophet describe the recent war in the Middle East with its tanks, guided missiles, night vision equipment, helicopters, jet planes, and computers? Who, in his day, could possibly understand what was meant by a description of what is now modern-day war?”
The prophet’s task was even more difficult than this, however. The prophet’s task was to not only describe future earthly events, but to portray the indescribable blessings of heaven and the unfathomable horrors of hell. How can one possibly describe those things which surpass our comprehension?
Men are perplexed not only by what they do not, or cannot, understand in prophecy but by what they do understand. The Old Testament prophets understood some messianic prophecies to speak of a suffering Savior and others to speak of a triumphant King. How could both lines of prophecy be true?
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow (1 Peter 1:10-11).
(4) Some prophecy was not even recognized as prophecy until after it was fulfilled and declared to be prophecy. When Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus, His parents were instructed to take Him to Egypt. As Jesus was brought out of Egypt, prophecy was fulfilled--a prophecy no one understood to be prophecy:
And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call My Son” (Matthew 2:14-15).
Some Old Testament messianic prophecies were recognized as such by men of old. Other prophecies (like that of Hosea 11:1 above) were not. When fulfilled, these prophecies and their fulfillment were pointed out.
(5) Men faced the problem of harmonizing prophecy with other prophecies. The Old Testament prophecies presented the prophets and others with a problem: the prophecies were like individual pieces of a puzzle which did not seem to fit together to form a single picture. As already seen from Peter’s words in the first chapter of his first epistle, the prophets rightly discerned their prophecies concerning Messiah were of two types: (1) a suffering Messiah; and, (2) a triumphant Messiah. The Messiah was a sacrificial “Lamb of God” and the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” How could both streams of prophecy be true? They could not figure it out. All they could was hold to both sets of prophecy, along with the tension this produced. Only the coming of Jesus as Messiah as the Suffering Servant, and His teaching concerning His second coming as the Triumphant King, resolved the apparent tension.
(6) Biblical prophecy is literally and precisely fulfilled. There is a precision to divine prophecy. While details concerning the timing or fulfillment of certain future events is sometimes deliberately withheld, prophecy often is specific as to timing and other aspects. These specific prophecies are fulfilled precisely. And so the promise of God concerning the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is fulfilled to the very day:
And it came about at the end of four-hundred and thirty years, to the very day, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:41).
Evidence indicates that the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 pertaining to the first coming of our Lord was precisely fulfilled when our Lord made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem and was crucified on the cross of Calvary.
(7) Biblical prophecy is precisely fulfilled in a way men did not expect and did not understand until after its fulfillment. Nowhere in the Old or New Testament do we see the saints looking on as God’s promises are being fulfilled, fully understanding the events they are witnessing as fulfilled prophecy. People watched God’s hand at work with amazement much more than with understanding. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? (Romans 11:33-34).
But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND WHICH HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.” For to us God revealed them through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:7-10).
(8) Even when the fulfillment of biblical prophecy was recognized as such, it was understood imperfectly and in part. Those who were privileged to have their eyes opened to prophecy and its fulfillment were not enabled to understand prophecy as a whole, but only prophecy in one of its parts. At the birth of our Lord, many prophecies were being fulfilled. The birth of Jesus was proclaimed to those privileged witnesses and participants as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. What they knew was partial. They watched prophecy being fulfilled, rejoicing, but perplexed. They did not see the picture as a whole but only as a small part, one piece of the puzzle.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this can be seen in the life of Mary, the mother of our Lord. By divine revelation, Mary is made aware that the Messiah will be her child through a miraculous conception produced by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when God’s working is evident to her, we are told,
But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19, see also verse 51).
(9) The fulfillment of God’s promise was recognized by those who yearned for the Lord’s coming, whose hearts and minds were divinely opened--not by scholars nor with those with a highly developed prophetic scheme. The biblical scholars of Jesus’ day miserably failed to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. They knew some of the details (the gnats),137 but they missed the message (the camels).
Those who recognized the hand of God in the first coming of our Lord were not scholars. Most were simple people who loved God and who looked for His coming. They did not seem to understand the details of prophecy or grasp the plan of God. They did know that the One who would be their salvation was coming. They looked for and prayed for His coming. Those whose heads were filled with prophetic details missed the joy of beholding God’s hand at work. Yet those whose hearts were prepared for His coming saw it and rejoiced. It was indeed not to the scholars but to the simple, child-like people that Jesus revealed Himself.
(10) Those whom Jesus chose to be His disciples did not have a great grasp of prophecy. The disciples did not seem to understand Old Testament prophecy very well. Even those with a quick mind and an open heart did not immediately grasp how Jesus could be the promised Messiah.138 All too often the disciples resisted our Lord’s efforts to obey the Father by fulfilling those prophecies pertaining to Him and His ministry.139 Part of the proof of our Lord’s identity as Messiah, and of His ministry, was the change which took place in the thinking of His disciples. Over a period of time, they came to trust in Jesus as the Messiah of the Old Testament Scriptures rather than the “messiah” of their own sinful and distorted ambitions.
(11) Biblical prophecy is not given so that we might understand God’s plan in advance and how what is currently happening fulfills His plan; it is given so that we might recognize all history as the fulfillment of God’s plans and purposes after it has been accomplished. We have seen that men would never have planned what God did nor would they have achieved their goals in the way God ordained them to be accomplished. Biblical prophecy is probably as profitable in retrospect as it is in prospect. Prophecy has as much to say to us in looking back on its fulfillment as it does in looking forward to its fulfillment.
In the Old Testament, God employed prophecy to demonstrate His superiority over the non-existent “gods” of the heathen. Heathen gods could not create; they were the creation of human hands. God was the Creator. The gods of the heathen could not walk or talk; their worshippers carried them along. God spoke, and He was the One who carried His people along. Heathen gods did not control history. They did not foretell the future, and they were unable to bring events to pass. God set Himself apart by declaring in advance what He would do, and then doing it, just as He declared.
“Present your case,” the Lord says. Bring forward your strong arguments,” The King of Jacob says. “Let them bring forth and declare to us what is going to take place; As for the former events, declare what they were, That we may consider them, and know their outcome; Or announce to us what is coming. Declare the things what are going to come afterward, That we may know that you are gods; Indeed, do good or evil, that we may anxiously look about us and fear together. Behold, your are of no account, And your work amounts to nothing; He who chooses you is an abomination” (Isaiah 41:21-24).
“Because I know that you are obstinate, And your neck is an iron sinew, And your forehead bronze, Therefore I declared them to you long ago, Before they took place I proclaimed them to you, Lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them, And my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’” (Isaiah 48:4-5).
God declares in advance what He will do at a later time so that when prophecy is fulfilled, He will be shown to be a God who is sovereign, who accomplishes all that He set out to do. Prophecy testifies to the sovereign power of God and His ability to carry out His plan. God has a plan for His creation. Prophecy is the revelation of that plan in advance. History is the outworking of the plan.
The Plan of God for the Future
From the Days of the Disciples to the Day of the Lord (Mark 13:1-37)
We will now describe the plan of God for the future in a very broad, general way. Our concentration will not be the details of God’s future plans but the major events which are a part of His plan as revealed in biblical prophecy. Many biblical texts provide bits and pieces concerning the future. Fewer texts lay out God’s plan for the future in a more general way. I have chosen two major texts which, together, provide an outline of future events--from the time of our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection to the coming of the New Jerusalem and the time of man’s eternal blessing or torment.
Our texts are Mark chapter 13140 and Revelation 19-22. Mark’s account takes us from the time of the disciples to the time of Christ’s second coming. Revelation 19 carries on with the most detailed account of the events which accompany and follow our Lord’s second coming. I understand both passages to deal with future events chronologically. On the following page is a chart of the sequence of events pertaining to the second coming of our Lord as outlined by these two texts.
As the final days of our Lord’s earthly ministry drew to a close, Jesus was with His disciples in Jerusalem. Greatly impressed with the beauty and splendor of the temple, the disciples expressed this to Jesus. But Jesus cautioned them not to become too attached to the temple since it would soon be leveled with not so much as one stone left upon another. This destruction took place in the lifetime of most of the disciples. In 70 A.D., the Roman army under Titus sacked the city of Jerusalem, not only leveling the city but torturing and killing many of the Jews.
Our Lord’s statement concerning the destruction was rightly understood by the disciples as a part of the program which consummated the end of the age and ushered in the kingdom of God. They responded to our Lord’s words by asking what sign would signal the end. Jesus’ answer, recorded in Mark 13:5-37, identified and characterized the major events leading up to His second coming.
Jesus did not begin by telling His disciples of coming events and their timing. He began by warning them of the dangers which these times posed for His followers. Unbelievers, oblivious to their eternal destiny, find the Lord’s return coming upon them suddenly, unexpectedly, and irreversibly (Matthew 24:37-39). The danger for some Christians is the same. They may not be waiting and watching for the coming of our Lord’s kingdom (see Matthew 24:25-51).141
For some Christians, there is an opposite danger. Those who eagerly await our Lord’s return may be convinced by the bold claims of a false “messiah.” Those who are eager for the Lord’s return, for trials and tribulations to cease, and to enter into the glories of heaven, may become the victims of deceivers, many of whom will appear in the latter times.
Sequence of Events
in the Lord’s Second Coming
The Setting: Temple to be Destroyed
Matt. 24:1-2; Luke 21:5-6
The Question: What will be the sign of your coming?
Matt. 24:3; Luke 21:7
Characteristics of the Latter Days
Matt. 24:4-14; Luke 21:8-19; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Tim. 3-4; 2 Peter 2-3
The Abomination of Desolation and the Great Tribulation
Dan. 9:26-27; 12:10-12; Matt. 24:15-28; Luke 21:20-24;
The Coming of the Son of Man (Removal of Saints) (Day of the Lord
Matt. 24:29-31; Luke 21:25-28
Lessons from the Last Days
Matt. 24:32-51; Luke 21:29-36
The Marriage of Christ to His Bride
The Banquet of the Buzzards: The Defeat and Destruction of Christ’s Enemies
The Millennial Reign of Christ
The Final Battle
Resurrection of the Wicked and Judgment
The Creation of the New Heavens and New Earth
Heb. 11:13-16; 2 Pet. 3:10-13; John 14:1-2
I know the danger of high expectations. In the Pacific Northwest, I occasionally went salmon fishing. Normally I used a heavy flasher followed by a herring with a hook. The flasher accomplished two purposes: It was bright so that it would flash under the water, and it wobbled in the water causing a flashing sensation, which made the herring weave about as though it were injured. Supposedly, this was an irresistible combination for salmon.
The inexperienced, highly expectant fisherman struggled with the tugging sensation produced by the flasher. When the lure was pulled slowly through the water, it continually produced a tugging action much like a small fish would produce. Hoping to catch a fish, each tug heightened my sense of expectation. Thinking there was a fish on the line, I would reel in the line to look--no fish! When the lure got caught on a piece of seaweed, the thrill was even bigger. The end of the pole would bend and then came a steady drag. I had to reel in my line to remove the weeds.
Until I caught my first salmon, I could not imagine how I would ever know when I really had a fish on the line. After my first catch, I seldom agonized over those little tugs again. You know when you have a salmon on the line!
A fisherman in the Northwest was fishing from a small boat and bringing in a salmon on his line. Suddenly his pole bent, and the line began to reel out rapidly with the boat moving in the direction of the fish. With amazement, the fisherman saw that a killer whale had swallowed the salmon on his line. Wisely, he cut the line, leaving the salmon to the whale.
Our Lord’s coming is like this. There will be little “tugs” by those who claim to be Messiah but who are not. When the Messiah does come, we will have no doubt. The Christian will know. The whole world will know. The claims of false messiah’s must be recognized as false and the men as counterfeits. Christians must be especially alert, for they will be one of the prime targets (see Mark 13:22).
Having been a father six times, I have begun to appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the moment of delivery. The early symptoms in no way indicate that the time of birth is at hand. They do, however, assure the parents that the process is underway.
The same is true of the second coming of our Lord. There are early symptoms predicted in prophecy which tell the process has begun, even though the day of our Lord’s coming may still be distant. In verses 7-13, Jesus described for His disciples some of the evidences pointing to the distant day of His return. These, He cautioned, were not an indication of the end, but “merely the beginning of birth pangs” (verses 7-8). These are not the last days, but we might think of them as the latter days.
Jesus describes in verses 7 and 8 the political and environmental chaos of the latter days. There will be wars and rumors of wars. In addition to political conflict between nations, there would be natural disasters, including earthquakes and famines. Things apparently go from bad to worse as the time of our Lord’s return approaches.
Verses 9-13 describe a growing opposition to our Lord expressed by the hostility and persecution of believers by their fellowmen. This includes not merely isolated instances of persecution but opposition carried out by means of the political and judicial system. Persecution is carried out officially--it is wide-spread and generally accepted. Persecution comes to the point where even members of one’s own family turn against him because of the gospel (verse 12). Men oppose Christians because of their hatred of the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 13).
All of this is merely a prelude to times of even greater trouble. At verse 14, Jesus turns to the time of the Great Tribulation. As earlier described by the prophet Daniel, this time will be easily identified when the abomination of desolation takes place in Jerusalem and involves the Jewish sacrifices and worship (see Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The abomination of desolation, as Daniel speaks of it, is one of the fixed points in time from which the remaining 1290 days (and 1335 days) mentioned in Daniel 12:11 and 12 are counted. All who can should flee from Jerusalem to the mountains without delay or turning back. Were these days of tribulation not shortened, no life would be spared. For the sake of the elect, God shortens them. As I understand our Lord’s words, believers will be present during this time of tribulation, but they will be removed before the day of God’s wrath commences (13:24-27). God does not promise to deliver His people from tribulation but from the outpouring of His wrath which takes place after the tribulation (see 1 Thessalonians 5:9).
After the tribulation (verse 24), the second coming of Christ is immediately preceded by great cosmic signs. The sun is darkened, the moon gives no light, the stars fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven are shaken (verses 24-25). Then the Lord will come in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory (verse 26).142 At this time our Lord will gather up His own, removing them from the earth and from the midst of the wicked so the righteous will not suffer God’s wrath with the wicked (verse 27).143
The Lord does not provide details of what occurs as a result of His second coming. That we shall learn from chapters 19 through 22 of Revelation. In the final verses of Mark 13, Jesus sought to impress upon His disciples the practical implications of the prophecy He had just revealed to them. In verses 28-32, Jesus used the parable of the fig tree to show His disciples that while the exact day of His return could not be known, the season of His second coming should be evident. The conditions He has just described indicate the nearness of His return. Once the signs of the final events appeared, the day of His return would not even be a generation away (verse 30).
While heaven and earth would pass away, His eternal Word would not. His disciples should value in this life that which will last through eternity. Material things will not last, but His Word will endure. Let those who trust in the Living Word come to value His written Word. Whatever events the future held, His Word concerning the future was sure. Time causes some things to go away and other things to change. God’s Word endures--changeless through time--like God Himself. In those volatile times ahead, with changes and tumult constantly present or threatening, His disciples must rest their faith and hope in Him who is changeless and in His changeless Word.
The final verses of chapter 13 sound much like the first. There is a strong note of warning, a great need for caution. The last days require alertness. We do not know when the Lord will return. Those who are watchful will discern the season of His coming. His return should not catch us asleep, oblivious concerning the times, and unfaithful with regard to our duty. Jesus’ final words on the subject of His second coming are commanding: “Be on the alert!” (Mark 13:37).
From the Second Coming of Christ to Eternity (Rev. 19-22)
The Book of Revelation describes the final events of world history with great detail. Its vivid description is very symbolic and thus difficult to interpret with certainty.144 I believe this is by design. In the light of eternity, all of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation will be seen as having been precisely fulfilled. Someone has rightly summarized the message of Revelation as, “God wins!”
Chapters 6-18 describe the events leading up to the second coming of our Lord. Chapters 19-22 describe the events flowing out of the second coming of Christ, taking us into the final phase of God’s eternal plan.145 Let us now consider the events God employs to bring history to its culmination and absorb time into eternity.
Revelation 19 contains two different contrasts. In the first ten verses of the chapter, there is contrast between the judgment of the great harlot (unbelieving Israel) and the marriage of Christ to His bride (the church). The second contrast is between the feast associated with the marriage of Christ and His bride and the “feast” of the birds who devour the victims of God’s wrath on sinners.
Revelation 19 sums up the fulfillment of two main purposes for our Lord’s return: (1) the rewarding of the righteous, and (2) the judgment of the wicked. These two events are described as the result of the return of the Lord from heaven to earth. Those who have served Satan and opposed God will be defeated. The beast and the false prophet will be cast into the lake of fire (19:19-20).
The focus of chapter 20 is the millennial reign of Christ. Satan is bound for 1,000 years. During this time, he cannot deceive or influence men (verses 1-3). The righteous dead, the Old Testament saints, are resurrected, so that the promises which God gave them might be literally fulfilled (verses 4-6). At the end of this 1,000 year period, Satan will be released for a short time (verses 3, 7). He will find among men a sizable group who do not want the perfect rule of God and who gladly join with him to resist the rule of God. As these enemies of God gather to do battle, fire from heaven destroys them (verse 9). Satan is thrown into the lake of fire, joining the beast and the false prophet (verse 10). There they will be tormented forever.
There is now a second resurrection. This is for those who have entered into the second death, due to their rebellion against God (see verses 6, 11-13). These resurrected unbelievers refused to trust in the work of Jesus Christ; consequently, they are judged on the basis of their own works. They are cast into the lake of fire, along with Satan, the beast, and the false prophet (verse 15). In addition, death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire. It is a horrible eternal fate but one that is deserved (see 16:6).
Revelation 21 and 22 describe the passing away of the old heaven and earth and the coming of the new (21:1). The New Jerusalem descends from heaven. The city is 1500 miles in length, width, and height (21:16). There is no temple in the city. The Lord God and the Lamb are the sanctuary (21:22). Inside the city are all those who have trusted in the Lord Jesus, whose names have been written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27; 22:14). Outside are those who have rejected Him, who look on with a view of the glory which they rejected and refused (22:15).
The Book of Revelation, and the Bible, ends with an invitation to all to enter into the blessings of this city (22:17) and a word of warning to any who would tamper with the words of this revelation (22:18-19).
These are the major events which take place from the time of our Lord’s first coming to die for sinners and make men righteous to the time of His second appearance on earth to judge sinners and to reward the righteous. Many details have not been included in this brief survey, and many issues and questions have not been raised or resolved. Some questions may have been raised but not answered.
What is the purpose of the prophecy we have surveyed in this lesson? What are we to gain from it? Let me conclude by summarizing some of the ways biblical prophecy relates to us today.
(1) Biblical prophecy reveals to men the plan of God for the future, which we would not know apart from divine revelation. Prophecy reveals God’s plan. If God had not revealed His plan for the future, we would never have conceived of it. In its simplest form, the plan is this : Jesus Christ, who came first to save men from their sins, will come again to complete their salvation, and to judge all who reject it. He is coming to rule and to reign as the King over a new heaven and a new earth. He will reign from the heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling place of all who have been made righteous through faith in His shed blood.
(2) God’s plan for the future is the basis for faith and obedience to God’s Word. Prophecy not only sets God apart from all other “gods,” it sets His Word apart as both true and reliable. Prophecy proves that God says what He means and means what He says. It shows not only that God has a plan but that He is able to bring that plan to pass.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Fulfilled prophecy enables us to reiterate the words of Peter when he said,
“We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).146
(3) God’s plan for the future testifies that the plan is already in motion and that the day of His return is drawing ever more near. We should see all around us the evidences that we live in the latter days and that the last days may be quickly approaching. When they do, our Lord’s return is less than a generation away.
(4) God’s plan for the future (prophecy) should motivate us to faithfulness and obedience.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! (2 Peter 3:11-12).
The second coming of our Lord, one of the fundamental truths of the Scriptures, should be a source of great encouragement and motivation. It plays a major role in nearly all of Paul’s epistles. Notice, however, the central role which the hope of our Lord’s second coming plays in his first epistle to the Thessalonians. Every chapter of his epistle turns our attention to our Lord’s return:
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you; and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all men, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He will also bring it to pass (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 23-24).
(5) God’s plan for the future is the basis for our comfort in the face of death and our endurance in the midst of persecution.
For I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our other man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).147
It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 1:11-13).
(6) God’s plan for the lost in the future should motivate the Christian to warn the lost of the horror of hell and proclaim the gospel and the hope of heaven.
And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:38-40)
Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:9-11).
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
(7) The revelation of God’s plan to us in Scripture testifies to our intimacy with God. The fact that God has revealed His plans to us shows us that we are His friends and not merely His slaves.
Then the man rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:16-19).
No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you (John 15:15).
The broad outline of God’s plan for the future has been revealed in His Word. Its fulfillment is as certain as the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God who planned and revealed it to us. That plan leads to but one of two destinies: eternal blessing or eternal torment. Fos provided in His plan for all to be saved through the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus on Calvary. To trust in Him is to be assured of eternal life in His presence. To trust in anything or anyone else is to spend eternity outside of the New Jerusalem, away from God’s presence and in eternal torment. May God’s plan for the future be a source of salvation, comfort, and hope as you trust in His Son.
And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and let the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and let the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes takes the water of life without cost (Revelation 22:10-17).
For Further Study and Meditation
(1) What do we know about the future for certain?
We know that Jesus Christ, who came the first time to suffer God’s wrath in order to pay the penalty for sin, will come again to overthrow His enemies and to establish His kingdom. Upon His return He will reward the righteous and punish sinners. Satan, and those who have followed him, will be cast into the lake of fire. All those who have died will be raised from the dead either to suffer eternal torment, or to enjoy the blessedness of God’s presence.
The latter days will be characterized by political and natural chaos. Christians will be persecuted for their faith, but this will provide an opportunity for bearing witness to the gospel. Those who have trusted in Christ for salvation will experience the wrath of men but will be delivered from the wrath of God. The time of the great tribulation will be indicated by the abomination of desolation, a defilement of great magnitude in Jerusalem. Satan will raise up those who will assist him in opposing God, but they will be defeated and cast into the lake of fire. The return of our Lord will be preceded by great cosmic signs. His coming will end the suffering of the saints and commence the day of God’s wrath on His enemies. Satan will be chained, and Christ will rule over men on the earth, but even after a time of just rule, many will turn to Satan (who is released for a time from his captivity) and try to overthrow the rule of God. In a final battle, the enemies of God will be defeated and destroyed.
The heavens and the earth will be destroyed and replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. The New Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and this will be the place of God’s presence to be shared with all the saints. The unbelievers will forever remain outside in eternal torment.
(2) What do Christians disagree about concerning the future? What is the basis for this disagreement? How should we relate to fellow-Christians with whom we differ over matters of prophecy?
Other than the fundamental truths outlined above, Christians disagree over almost everything else. They differ over the timing and sequence of events. They differ over the meaning of certain terms and over the degree to which prophecy can be taken literally. They disagree over whether the saints will endure any of the tribulation and whether there is a literal millennial reign of Christ. They disagree about what conditions must be met before Christ returns.
The disagreement which exists between serious Christians who have given study and thought to the matter of biblical prophecy is primarily because many of the details of prophecy are not clearly taught. Those fundamental truths with which all evangelical Christians agree are those truths which are taught clearly and repeatedly in Scripture. Aside from this, Christians differ because of their preferences, their presuppositions, their teaching, and their associations. The end product of one’s study of the Bible is determined by the principles by which the Scriptures are studied and interpreted. By and large, Christian differ over prophecy because they differ over their way of approaching and interpreting prophecy.
I believe 1 Corinthians 13 provides us with the guiding and governing principle--the principle of love. Paul teaches in this chapter that biblical prophecy is not complete and that our knowledge is much less than complete or perfect. Our relationship with those Christians with whom we differ should be governed by love. In addition, we would find much less friction among Christians if we admitted that most of our views concerning prophecy fall into the category of personal convictions and not foundational and fundamental truth. Our attitudes and actions would thus be dictated by Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10.
(3) What is God’s purpose in revealing what He does about His plan for the future?
God’s purpose is not to enable us to perfectly understand His plan for the future in advance of every stage of its fulfillment. He does not expect us to predict the future, nor to recognize or understand every event as it relates to the fulfillment of His perfect plan.
Prophecy is given to men to promote God’s glory. Prophecy spells out God’s plan in advance, so that when He has fulfilled His promises all will know that God not only has a perfect plan but that He always brings His plans to completion. Prophecy is given so that we might look forward to what God has promised and also so that we may look back on what God has fulfilled.
Prophecy is given to Christians as the basis for faith and hope. Prophecy provides us with God’s plan and with His promises. It provides us with the goal toward which Christians are headed which we shall surely (by God’s grace) attain. Prophecy shapes our perspective and rearranges our priorities. It should be the basis for our personal plans and goals. Prophecy is a source of comfort and encouragement, and it is also the basis for our motivation to suffer and to serve in the present, in the light of the blessings God has promised.
(4) What is God’s purpose in not revealing certain things about His plan for the future?
God has revealed all that we need to know. We do not need to know all the details of His plan. We do not need to know the exact time of His return or of other events. This necessitates a greater faith and diligence on our part. His purpose in what He reveals is not to satisfy our curiosity but to motivate us to love and good deeds. Much of what God has not revealed is that which we do not need to know or would not be able to understand even if it were revealed to us.
(5) Why does God not reveal the exact time of our Lord’s coming?
This is not for us to know. If we take the words of our Lord while on the earth seriously, it was not for our Lord to know either. This is for the Father to determine. Not knowing the exact time of His return necessitates that we be watchful and diligent, always looking for His return, or indications that the season is near.
(6) How does the revealed plan of God serve the purpose of manifesting the glory of God?
The plan reveals God’s infinite wisdom. The accomplishment of the plan demonstrates God’s sovereignty, His absolute control over human history.
(7) What good should the revealed plan of God for the future produce in the lives of His people?
Wonder. Gratitude. Humility. Praise. Obedience. Watchfulness. Endurance. Witnessing to the lost.
By informing His children of His plans, God has demonstrated the intimacy of His relationship with us (see Genesis 18:16-19 and John 15:15). We are shown to be His friends, and not just His slaves.
(8) What are some of the dangers or abuses of prophecy to which we should be alert?
One danger is curiosity. We want to know more than we should and especially more than God revealed. Another danger is that of making the study of prophecy a kind of intellectual or academic game, a puzzle which we seek to fill in. Any approach to prophecy which avoids or minimizes its practical demands is a distortion of the truth and of God’s purpose for revealing it. There is also the danger of speculation and of divisive argumentation over details. There is the danger of straining the gnats (the petty details) and missing the “camels” (the main points of emphasis). Most of all, there is the danger of failing to heed warnings and entering into the blessings to which prophecy points.
Psalm 2; 89; 96:10-13; 98:7-9; 110
Isaiah 2:12-21; 11; 13:6-16; 41:21-26; 44:6-7; 48:5; 60; 62; 65 and 66
Jeremiah 9:23-26; 23; 25:30-38; 30-33
Ezekiel 13:1-16; 16; 20; 30:1-5; 34; 36-39
Daniel 2; 7-9 (especially 9:24-27); 11-12
Joel 1:15; 2:1-2, 10-11, 30-31; 3:14-16
Amos 5:18-20; Obadiah 1:10-21
Zechariah 1:14--2:13; 12:10-14; 14:1-21; Malachi 4:5-6
Matthew 24 and 25; 26:63-64
Luke 17:20-37; 21:1-36
John 14:1-11; 15:15; 16:12-13
Acts 1:6-11; 2
Romans 2:4-11; 8:18-25; 11:25-32
1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 15:20-28, 50-58
2 Corinthians 4:16--5:21
Philippians 1:19-21; 2:5-11
1 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2:17-20; 3:11-13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23-24
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 2:1-12
1 Timothy 4:1-5; 6:13-16
2 Timothy 3:1--4:8
Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40; 12:18-29; 13:14
1 Peter 1:3-12; 2:12; 4:4-5, 12-19
2 Peter 1:12-21; 2:1--3:18
1 John 3:1-3; 4:17
Revelation (all, especially chapters 6-22)
130 Eschatology is the doctrine of future things. Biblical prophecy is the foundation for the study of future things. Eschatology is the doctrine which men derive from prophecy as they seek to arrange and harmonize prophecy systematically.
131 The definition of terms such as “wrath” and “tribulation” and expressions such as “the kingdom of God” and the “day of the Lord” play a crucial role in determining our understanding of eschatology.
132 Presuppositions are beliefs or opinions which we have already concluded to be true, whether they are indeed true or not. Once we presume something true or false, we often do not investigate further. And so while some of our presuppositions predispose us to certain prophetic conclusions, they also rule out other views as a possibility.
133 For example, the promised “blessings and cursings” of Deuteronomy 28 are clearly conditional. Other prophecies may appear fixed but are conditional as well. For example, the threatened judgment on Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) was put off for a time, based upon Nineveh’s repentance and upon the principle laid down by God in Jeremiah 18:1-12. It is obvious that Jonah knew his threat of impending judgment was conditional (see Jonah 4:1-2).
141 This text may not be speaking of the true believer but only of the professing Christian. These “unexpectant servants” are doomed. These are not those “saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Our Lord and the apostles warn Christians about adopting the same callousness to His return as characterizes the unbeliever (see 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11).
144 My personal conviction is that to the degree God desires us to understand the details of Revelation, this book is best understood in the light of the prophecies which precede it. A study of the Old Testament prophets makes the prophecy of Revelation come alive with meaning.
145 In my opinion, chapters 6-18 are more highly symbolic, and thus more difficult to understand than chapters 19-22. These chapters deal with the culmination of history in quite literal terms. It seems as though God wants us to understand the “end” more than the “means.”
146 It should be pointed out that the basis for Peter’s words is quite different from that which I have emphasized. I have said fulfilled prophecy gives greater confidence in the Scriptures, for God has always faithfully fulfilled His Word. Peter’s confidence in the prophetic Word is based upon the witness God Himself gave to the person of Jesus Christ and His word at the Mount of Transfiguration. The conclusion is the same; the basis is different. Nevertheless, we can express our confidence in the Scriptures with the same words Peter used.