October 22, 2008

"Do We Look for Another?"

2008 1530 page14 capIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD D. S. Samuel sat in a Singapore classroom, nervously awaiting the start of his Cambridge examination. At the signal to commence, he wrote the date at the top of the paper: December 8, 1941. In the section titled “History of the British Empire” he encounte the quest “Commen on Singinvincible fortress of the East.”1

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japanese troops spread out across Southeast Asia, conquering one Allied outpost after another. Manila fell on December 22. Brave little Wake Island held out until the twenty-third. Hong Kong, with its 12,000-man garrison, surrendered on a very unmerry Christmas Day, 1941.

The Allies consoled themselves with the impregnability of Singapore. The giant guns and battlements of that fortress city faced the sea. Impenetrable jungle protected the rear—or so they believed. The Japanese confounded British strategy by landing on the Malay Peninsula and advancing rapidly through the “impenetrable” jungle. Because all the city’s formidable weapons permanently confronted potential threats from the sea, they could not be brought to bear on invaders from the land. The commander of “Fortress Singapore” had little choice but to surrender.

The defenders of Singapore lost the city, not because they failed to prepare, but because they prepared for the wrong attack. Had they been uncertain about the direction of attack, Singapore’s defenders would have prepared for every possible contingency. To paraphrase Will Rogers: “It wasn’t what they didn’t know,” that defeated them, “but what they knew for sure that wasn’t so.” What they thought they knew made them vulnerable.

Reason for Caution
Not only soldiers in wartime but ordinary people may be led astray by elevating expectations to certainty. And even a prophet can fall prey to such expectations.

2008 1530 page14Few people have exhibited more clearly the marks of divine calling and godly leadership—or with greater courage—than John the Baptist. Where sages stumbled at the scope and meaning of Christ’s ministry, John recognized Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).* “‘He must increase,’” John said of Jesus, “‘but I must decrease’” (John 3:30). Later, Jesus would Himself testify to the authenticity of John the Baptist’s calling: “For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28, KJV).

Despite all this, however, John later became confused. “Time passed,” said Ellen White, “and the kingdom which John had condently expected was not established. In Herod’s dungeon, cut off from the life-giving air and the desert freedom, he waited and watched. There was no display of arms, no rending of prison doors.”2 Sending two of his disciples, he wanted to know from Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matt. 11:2, 3, KJV).

What explains this turnabout? How could one who’d seen the Spirit descend upon Jesus as a dove come to the place where he needed to ask such a question? Matthew gives us a clue: “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing . . .” (Matt. 11:2, NIV), we know that Jesus’ actions didn’t match the general expectations of a conquering, kingly Messiah. Apparently, they didn’t match John’s expectations either. When Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism, he said to them, “‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to ee from the wrath to come? . . . The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . . I baptize you with water . . . , but He who is coming after me . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand . . . and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’”(Matt. 3:7, 8, 10-12).

Seemingly contrary to these expectations, John heard that “Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness” (Matt. 9:35). John had expected judgment, but Jesus brought forgiveness; destruction, but Jesus brought healing; John expected bad news for the proud, but Jesus brought good news for the humble. That’s when John dispatched the messengers.

In response, Jesus pointed John to another group of messianic prophecies. “‘Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me’” (Matt. 11:4-6).

Receiving this explanation, John realized his expectations had been mistaken. But for a time, based on them, he’d been led to question the messiahship of Jesus. The greatest of the prophets had temporarily lost sight of the function of prophecy. Dening that function, Jesus said: “‘Now I have told you before it happens, so that when it happens, you may believe’” (John 14:29).

The Surprise Factor
God reveals the future to us so we’ll not lose hope; so that we can move forward in the knowledge that good will eventually triumph; so that we can learn to trust Him. Fulllment of prophecy conrms our trust, validates our hopes, and solidies our belief in God. But He doesn’t tell us every detail. Although He condes His intentions to us, He continually surprises us in the specic ways He carries out His purposes.

God’s prophecy concerning wicked Tyre provides a stunning example. In Ezekiel God had said of Tyre: “‘I will scrape her debris from her and make her a bare rock. She will be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea’” (Eze. 26:4, 5).

2008 1530 page14Besieged and conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century, B.C., Tyre relocated to an offshore island, leaving behind its rubble-strewn ruins on the shore. For nearly three centuries it appeared God’s prophecy had been frustrated. After all, Tyre still existed, and no one “spread their nets” on its ruins.

Then came the invasion by Alexander the Great. To reach the island, the unconventional Alexander had his men build a causeway from the shore, a project that required them to scrape Tyre’s abandoned shoreline ruins down to bedrock for every bit of earth and rubble they could haul.

God used Alexander to fulll His Word, but in a totally unexpected way. Time and again, the Bible records the fulllment of prophecy in ways and through means that surprised observers. And repeatedly, those who thought they knew God’s plans failed to recognize His hand when events did not match their expectations.

Learning From the Past
In our own history, the Millerite movement virtually evaporated overnight in October of 1844 when the prophecy of Daniel 8:14 was not fullled as they expected. And all this has particular signicance for us.

True to our name, Adventists are students of last-day events, often attempting to identify the movements, causes, or even individuals God will use as specic instruments to fulll His Word. A few among us invest countless hours lling in intricate, highly specic charts that detail the precise nature, order, and relationships of the nal events of earth’s history, demonstrating, I think, a desperate desire to accurately predict the future.

But that is not our proper role. Rather than building faith in God, such an approach seeks to replace faith with knowledge. It springs from a desire to walk by sight, rather than by faith. And if John the Baptist and the Millerites could misinterpret events, so can we.

Does that mean we stop looking into last-day events? No. But we should maintain certain safeguards— among them, the following:

1. Prayer. Pray for the Holy Spirit. Says Ellen White: “The Holy Spirit, shining upon the sacred page, will open our understanding, that we may know what is truth.”3 We must let the Spirit that inspired the Word lead us into the Word.

2. Humility. Continued study of end-time events will benet us only so long as we remember that our understanding of these matters remains partial, not whole; relative, not absolute.  Paul reminds us that “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9).

3. The study of the gospel. It’s more important to develop a saving relationship with Jesus than to understand every detail of prophecy. We are saved by faith, not by knowledge. God gives us prophecy to build our faith, not to make us look clever.

4. Looking at the big picture. We should not become so focused on details that we lose sight of the larger context.

5. Remaining tentative. God’s Word contains absolute truth. But I can no more comprehend all of it than I can contain the ocean in a teacup. I’m delighted God gave us a Bible that’s bigger than my own understanding.

Finally, God knows the end from the beginning. If I trust in Him, He will give me grace and knowledge enough for today. And that’s all I really need to know. 

*Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

2Education, p. 157.
3Testimonies to Ministers, p. 112.

Ed Dickerson is a church planter, speaker, and author, writing from Garrison, Iowa.