“I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:1-4, NRSV).1
And yet the Keeper of Israel was asleep, His chest rising and falling gently with the rhythm of the waves.
Bone-tired, barely able to lift His hand in one more blessing or bring healing to another sightless eye, Jesus had willed Himself to meet the hundreds who had waited hours for His touch. Now, “virtue had gone out of him” (Mark 5:20, KJV) as quickly as the sun slipped down behind the purple hills. His humanity sank into the brief oblivion of sleep while others steered the fishing boat. His Father would keep Israel tonight.
But the hills were full of eyes, not all of them human. Somewhere off to the east, behind the tombs where madmen roamed and pigs still browsed the evening grass, supernatural beings studied every movement of the wooden boat, each oar stroke in the placid lake, each kiss of wind that filled the billowing sail.
Lucifer and his legion found the evening peace detestable. Hearts that thrive on chaos cannot bear the calm of grace. And when the eastbound sailing boat approached the deeper fishing grounds, the adversary at last upset the heavy silence.
“We have an opportunity,” he growled, and fallen angels leaped to implement his strategy. “If we disturb the peace, excite the wind, bring on a storm the likes of which this lake has never seen, we can put that boat and all within it in the coldest depths of Galilee.”
The malevolence was deadly and undying. It had always been the devil’s purpose to bring his greatest rival to an end before Jesus could accomplish human rescue. “The prince of evil exerted all his power and cunning to destroy Jesus; for he saw that the Savior’s mercy and love, His compassion and pitying tenderness, were representing to the world the character of God.” 2
The prince of the powers of the air had more than breezes up his sleeve. “He has studied the secrets of the laboratories of nature, and he uses all his power to control the elements as far as God allows.” 3 An updraft here, a forming cloud there; a fiendishly fortunate conjunction of topography, cool night, and dropping atmospheric pressure presented Lucifer with what must have seemed his finest chance to end the Savior’s life. It made no difference to the devil that a dozen dull disciples and those in many trailing boats would meet their end as well. Destructiveness is casual in its counting.
And so the storm began, first with the nearly imperceptible changes in wind direction and the steadily increasing headwind that made the man at the tiller tack his way across the lake—first north, then south—intent on keeping full wind in the sail. Across the hilltops of Gennesaret the evening mist was braided into one, then 20, then 200 clouds, until a swirling mass of lethal wind was concentrated, amplified, and targeted on tiny boats five miles away. Whatever in the roiling night could be used for Satan’s purposes was used. The pent-up fury of millennia blew cold and hot, then hotter still, until a cyclone worthy of some distant delta blew down with bitter, blasting force.
We know the story well—too well. All unconcerned, the followers of Jesus had missed the signs that something big was just about to happen. Wrapped in the false security of sameness and short-sightedness, the twelve had missed the warnings from the One. They were more certain of themselves than they had any right to be, and counted peace with every oar beat. They dropped their guard when guard was just the thing they needed.
What signs were there of an approaching storm? None they could see or feel or smell: no omens in the sky, or gray-green funnels bearing down upon them. “For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4, RSV).4 They had not yet imagined that they and the One they followed were at the center of a crisis bigger than their lake, their livelihoods, or even their lives. They had missed the clear significance of all that Jesus had been trying to tell them, thinking that the controversies with priests and elders—and each other—were all that truly mattered.
But there was—there is—a controversy larger than we know. Even now the mist is rising, swirling on the peaks of so-called everyday events. The updrafts of false rhetoric; the chill of underpressurized economies; the swirling fog of politics as usual; the heat of blood bespattered on the paving stones by this day’s suicide bombing in—where was it now?—these are the makings of a storm. These are the warnings, often undetected, that nothing is as it appears. “For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman” (1 Thess. 5:3, NKJV).5
How do storms start? The meteorologist at the Weather Channel headquarters in Atlanta allowed for all the variables.
“Here are some things you should know about storms,” he said patiently, as though used to dealing with those naive about his science. “The worst storms in the world are in the United States and Bangladesh”—ironically, two countries with polar opposite economies, great disparities in wealth, and even greater differences in their ability to recover from catastrophes. America’s worst storm—Katrina, in 2005—took 1,464 lives. The November 1970 Bholo cyclone claimed more than 500,000 in Bangladesh’s flooded delta.
Apparently—to those who know—the planet is one vast, substantial storm—still forming, formed, re-forming, and deforming. There is no moment with no “weather,” for even days of sun and gentle breezes are precursors of storms a half world away. All moments of apparent lull are truly just the calm before the ceaseless rhythm of approaching storms.
But what, specifically, is the sequence of a storm, and what would be the first sign of its coming? Would it be clouds piling up in the distance, or wind swaying in the tops of the mulberry trees?
And what of so-called folk signs, such as the seeming silence of the birds, cows unexpectedly lying down in midday, or Grandma’s famous achy joints? How much do storms result from changed humidity, as deserts and rain forests each offer their “push” and “pull”? Or is dropping barometric pressure the clearest sign of change?
“It really depends on where you are in the world,” the meteorologist offered noncommittally. “Almost simultaneously, changes begin to occur—in air pressure, clouds, and the winds.” The belief in a predictable and typically sequential pattern is apparently as unreliable as—well, the weather.
“Almost simultaneously, changes begin to occur.” Those who count on some unvarying unfolding of storm signs will quickly find themselves mistaken, for it is the confluence of conditions, not the sequence, that takes even experienced weather watchers off guard. Expecting nature to warn us of its plans to wreak havoc with the landscape or our lives is the surest way to get it wrong, and to be unprepared for the crisis soon to break upon our heads.
And so it is with rapidly unfolding political, economic, and environmental events that signal our old world is headed for anything but “business as usual.” The great crisis predicted in Bible prophecy and underscored in the Spirit of Prophecy will likely not pace itself to match our time lines and our charts, elaborate though they be. Since it is the devil’s delight to catch humanity unprepared and sweep so many off to everlasting loss, should we, in fact, expect the final movements to be measured, temperate, and easy to describe? No; in fact, “the agencies of evil are combining their forces and consolidating. They are strengthening for the last great crisis. Great changes are soon to take place in our world, and the final movements will be rapid ones.” 6
“Satan works through the elements also to garner his harvest of unprepared souls. . . . In accidents and calamities by sea and by land, in great conflagrations, in fierce tornadoes and terrific hailstorms, in tempests, floods, cyclones, tidal waves, and earthquakes, in every place and in a thousand forms, Satan is exercising his power. He sweeps away the ripening harvest, and famine and distress follow. He imparts to the air a deadly taint, and thousands perish by the pestilence. These visitations are to become more and more frequent and disastrous.” 7
The experience of the followers of William Miller who formed the nucleus of the Seventh-day Adventist Church more than 150 years ago reminds us how easily even the devout can be mistaken when they assume that their grasp of Bible prophecy—and its fulfillment in their age—is complete and error-free. Only in the aftermath of their Great Disappointment of October 1844 did they come to grasp that while the Bible’s 2,300-year prophecy was true, their initial interpretation of that prophecy was fallible and shortsighted. So again in our own age, those who confidently assert that some political event, earthquake, or outbreak of war is the ironclad indicator of a “date certain” for Jesus’ second coming will almost certainly experience both the public embarrassment of being wrong and the private anguish of unmet expectation.
The timeless truths of Bible prophecy will yet have their great fulfillment: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18, NKJV). But the fulfillment of those inspired words is all about the affirmation of God’s truthfulness, not a confirmation of the accuracy of His followers. Far better to say as William Miller himself concluded: “I have fixed my mind upon another time, and here I mean to stand until God gives me more light.—And that is Today, TODAY, and TODAY, until He comes, and I see HIM for whom my soul yearns.”8
The hair-raising storm described in Mark 4 reminds us of life lessons once learned by those who weathered the storm in a sinkable boat. “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11, NKJV).
First among these is the value of attentiveness. While some believers, admittedly, grow hypervigilant—connecting dots between every papal itinerary or Supreme Court ruling and their understanding of events that will precede Christ’s coming—the greater danger is the assumption of global continuity and sameness, and that nothing world-changing can happen in, say, less than five years.
Jesus Himself rebuked the most far-seeing leaders of His society for their lack of attentiveness to the great events He had inaugurated. Consumed with dailyness and busyness, they missed the warnings of the storm about to break upon their heads: “He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times’ ” (Matt. 16:2, 3, NKJV).
Preoccupation with everyday life similarly persuaded the residents of the antediluvian world—who had never witnessed a storm—that the idea of the crisis Noah preached was unfounded and unprecedented. But for all but Noah and the members of his immediate family, probation closed upon the world under pink sky and glorious sunset. This is a warning to us upon whom the ends of the world have come that an unwarranted confidence in peace and safety is itself a sign of the times.
As we write this, national economies that were the boast of the stock markets in New York, London, and Tokyo just 12 months ago are teetering on the edge of disaster. Some currencies have floated; others have drowned. Prices for the fuel that fuels our world have plunged by more than half, but even so, so-called recoveries are proving tepid at best. Rapidly shifting political and military alliances have made many national borders mere lines in the sand as mass movements of displaced peoples overwhelm the infrastructures of the past. Tribalism, once thought a relic of the past century, has found new power in Asia, Africa, Europe, and even the Americas, as the current political season well illustrates.
While there is nothing wrong with loving peace and purple sunsets, we ought never to make the mistake of assuming that nothing will change in the night, or that smooth sailing can be expected. Attentiveness requires the sober interplay of both facts and faith—all with the goal of being unsurprised by what will surely shock the heedless world about us. The apostle Paul encourages just such watchfulness: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day” (1 Thess. 5:4, 5, NRSV).
At least as important as attentiveness is the value of togetherness—of faithfulness—in staying close to Jesus. Those whom John describes in Revelation as among the redeemed “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev. 14:4)—including into the boat, even when that seems ill-advised by pundits or popularity.
In Mark’s account of the storm on the lake, we find the disciples frantically bailing water and rowing, in part because they didn’t grasp the power of the One with whom they sailed. Most of the men in the boat that night were skillful fishermen, with long years of experience in all kinds of weather on that very lake. But nothing in their experience had prepared them for the violence and the drama of those moments. They were convinced that they were going down to the bottom of that lake to rest forever among all the fish they were used to catching. Meanwhile, Jesus lay blissfully asleep in the stern of the boat, completely unaware of all the commotion and the panic all around Him.
It’s enough to say that they were furious with Him. Because they were having an emergency in their lives, they assumed that He should be having an emergency in His life. And when He continued to sleep while they continued to panic, they finally woke Him and told Him off in good Galilean fashion: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38).
Those were harsh words to be saying to Jesus. For months He had shown His deep affection for them by countless acts of generosity and thoughtfulness. He had patiently tried to teach them about God when their minds were full of earth. He had rescued them when they got themselves in dangerous and embarrassing situations. He had settled their incessant squabbling with each other about who was going to end up in the top place, and given them the first truly noble work that any of them had ever done.
And now, here they were, accusing Jesus of not caring enough about them. They were blasting Him because in the middle of a storm they thought impossible, He was sleeping the sleep of the imperturbable.
You know the story well. When Jesus finished calming the storm—and it must have taken Him all of three seconds—He turned to them and reminded them again of how little they understood the rhythms of His life. “Why are you so afraid?” He asked them. “Do you still have no faith?” (verse 40).
If they had been in step with Jesus; if they had been in harmony with Jesus; if they had been living their lives by the rhythm of His life, they would have known that nothing bad could happen to them unless Jesus allowed it to happen.
Had they fully valued the privilege of being in the company of Jesus, they would have known that the safest place in the entire universe at that moment in time was actually in that sinking boat in the middle of the sea of Galilee, because Jesus was in it.
And how is it with you as you read this? Are you anxious today? Are you fearful, clamoring for God to do something, to fix something, to intervene somehow in your life or in the lives of those you love? Does it seem to you sometimes that Jesus must be asleep, that He isn’t listening to all your urgent, impassioned prayers? Do you find yourself frequently on the verge of “telling God off”—telling Him how uncaring He seems, how uninterested He seems in the emergencies and crises of your everyday life?
If any or all of those things are true of you, then it’s time to stop at least long enough to ask yourself if it is really a disciple’s life you are living. Does your life move to the rhythms of Jesus’ life? Do you enjoy being alone with Jesus each day? Do you regularly create time for your family, for your friends, for worship, for “renewing experiences”? Are you living your life by the rhythms of Jesus, or are you dancing frantically to the rapid beat of our secular and restless generation?
Jesus, the great Rabbi of your life, says to you today what He once said to His restless and frightened disciples: “Come unto Me, . . . and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28, NKJV). Do you hear Him today? Can you quiet your racing heart and your frazzled nerves long enough to really hear His invitation?
Can you put aside—put out of your head—the never-ending to-do lists of life? Can you set these aside long enough to hear the voice of Him who loves you with an everlasting love?
“I will give you rest,” Jesus says, “and not only rest in your bed at night, when you can sleep like a child with a clear conscience, but I’ll give you rest in the middle of all the rushing, frantic world around you. I’ll walk lonely roads with you, and hold you when the boat appears to wallow. I’ll talk quietly to you when everyone else in your life is yelling at you or barking orders at you. I’ll heal you from that awful sickness that makes you think you must take everything in your own hands and struggle with and make it work.”
“I’ll teach you how to sleep on stormy nights, and how to find real peace in the midst of all the crash of thunder.
More than a century ago Ellen White looked down through time and saw our day—and our night. “A storm is coming, relentless in its fury,” she wrote. “Are we prepared to meet it? We need not say: The perils of the last days are soon to come upon us. Already they have come.” 9
The storm just ahead is neither mythical nor avoidable. It may yet surprise us, as the storm on Galilee surprised Jesus’ disciples, with its awfulness and power. All that can be shaken will be shaken. We should get accustomed to the howling of the wind and the groaning of the planking underneath our feet. All that seems secure just now will prove illusory: “Then every island fled away, and the mountains were not found” (Rev. 16.20, NKJV).
But we are never left alone, or to the mercy of the waves. He who began this great work—in this remnant movement and in our lives—will fulfill His promise and bring it to completion. That One standing in the stern, raising His hands over the chaos and quieting our hearts—“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17, RSV).
“Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.”10
Having grown up in this faith community as a fifth generation Seventh-day Adventist, it seems I have always lived with the pronouncement, “Jesus is coming soon.” And so when asked today if I still believe in that imminence, I choose to respond as the apostles did: “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7); “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (Romans 13:12); “‘In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay’” (Hebrews 10:37). Add to these confessions of imminence the declaration of our Lord Himself, woven into the Bible’s last prayer, and what other stance is there for an Adventist to embrace? “‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).
Yes, but were those ancient texts ever intended to teach that Christ is returning really soon? Having officiated at the funerals of young men and women not even in their prime of life—cut down by the tragedy of an unexpected death—it is my pastoral sense that the Spirit of God, who inspired the spirit of imminence in the New Testament, in fact does intend for His message to be taken quite literally: “Live in daily expectation that Christ is coming soon—for your last breath is one breath away from your first breath at the return of Jesus.”
This is a portion of the full response to our questions on where we are in the stream of prophecy. To read the entire response, go to www.AdventistReview.org
In spite of many false alarms it still bears repeating that Jesus emphatically stated nobody knows the day or the hour of His return. Nevertheless, He did give us a number of signs so we could know when it’s coming was near. Based on virtually every metric of prophecy I for one absolutely believe the Lord’s coming is soon.
Mounting violence, check. The increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, check. Plunging morals and cold hearts, check. Mankind destroying the earth, check. Not to mention the dramatic rise of Pope Francis’ popularity and power combined with his repeated calls for a religious unity.
But I still think many people may have some confused concepts regarding what things will look like in the world just before the close of probation. They often picture something like fire and brimstone belching from the earth as entire cities are swallowed and demon possessed mobs rampaging around the planet searching for the saints who are hiding in the hills.
Jesus paints a somewhat different picture of life going on with some semblance of normality. Jesus said, “…the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). For the world it comes “as a thief” when all are crying “peace, peace”. This means He is not going to wait until the very last days are obvious and the world seems ready to drop off a precipice or collide with a wall. Everybody would expect it then.
This is a portion of the full response to our questions on where we are in the stream of prophecy. To read the entire response, go to www.AdventistReview.org
Jared Thurmon coordinates marketing and is the strategic partnerships liaison for Adventist Review. Bill Knott is editor and executive publisher of Adventist Review.