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|THE ADVENT HOPE FOR HUMAN
THE NATURE AND
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
Have you ever experienced the feeling of being lost, perhaps while driving on unfamiliar country roads? You eagerly looked for landmarks or road signs to determine your location on the map, but there were no recognizable signs in sight. It is hard to describe the sense of hopelessness that comes from the awareness of being lost, of not being able to reach ones destination as expected.
Recognizable signs are needed to nourish our hope to reach our destination. This is true whether we travel by car on the highways or by faith on the Christian way to the Kingdom. Christ was cognizant of the need for signs which could nourish our hope while awaiting His Return. In His Olivet Discourse, the longest reported by the Synoptics, Christ gave several specific signs foreshadowing His Return. Several New Testament writers also speak of certain events that till preceded the Second Advent. We shall often refer to these as "Advent signs."
Throughout the centuries there have been Christians who have looked for the fulfillment of the Advent signs in the events of their time. Some Christians, like Hal Lindsey, have studied the Advent signs to pinpoint Gods specific timetable of events leading to Christs Return. For example, Lindsey finds in Christs reference to the budding of the fig tree (Matt 24:32-35) the time clue to calculate the approximate year of the Second Advent, namely, by 1988.1
Objective of Chapter. The attempts which have been made by well-meaning Christians to derive from the study of Advent signs a rather precise timetable of End-time events raise the dual questions of the nature and function of the Advent signs. These two questions will be addressed in this chapter where we shall examine first the nature of the Advent signs and then their function. This investigation is designed to foster a legitimate use and appreciation for the precursory signs of Christs Return.
1. The Generic Nature of the Advent Signs
The signs of the End given by Christ in His Olivet Discourse (which include false Christs, wars, earthquakes, famines, worldwide Gospel proclamation, and tribulation), are all signs which cannot be precisely dated or fixed. Christ did not say, for example, when an earthquake completely destroys San Francisco, or when famine causes the death of hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia or Cambodia, "then you know that my Return is near."
Constant Relevance. On the contrary, Christ chose to give signs of a generic nature which could find a degree of fulfillment in every age. The reason for his is quite evident. Believers in every age need to see the Advent signs in order to experience the reassurance of the certainty and imminence of Christs Coming.
Past and present misguided attempts to life the veil of secrecy from Gods future must not detract from the legitimate contemporizing of the Advent signs. Faith and hope in the soon-Coming of the Lord can only remain living expectations if they are sustained by reassuring signs.
2. Contemporary Application of Advent Signs
The justification for contemporizing the Advent signs can be found in the example of Christ Himself who related the signs of His Return directly to His disciples: "Take heed that no one leads you astray. . . you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; . . . they will deliver you up to tribulation, . . . when you see the desolating sacrilege . . . I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, Lo, he is in the wilderness, do not go out . . . when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. . . Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt 24:4, 6, 9, 15, 25, 26, 33, 42).2
Obviously the "you" means not only Christs immediate twelve disciples, but also all His future followers. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that Christ expected His apostles to be the first to see the fulfillment of the Advent signs. This fact indicates that the signs given by Christ are relevant to believers living in every age.
3. Contemporary Recognition of Advent Signs
Pauls Perception. New Testament believers recognized the contemporary application of the Advent signs. Paul, for example, saw in such signs as the Gospels proclamation to the known world (Rom 15:19-24) and the rebellion and lawlessness being "already at work" (2 Thess 2:3, 7; 2 Tim 3:1-5) indications that "the appointed time has grown very short." "The night is far gone, the day is at hand" (1 Cor 7:29, 31; Rom 13:12).
Peters Perception. Peter say in "the fiery ordeal" that was about to come upon the Christians (1 Pet 4:12)presumably an allusion to the Neronian persecutiona sign that "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Pet 4:7).
Johns Perception. John perceived in the contemporary arising of antichrists, that is false teachers who denied the messiahship and the incarnation of Christ (1 John 4:2-3), the sign that "it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18). He draws this conclusion explicitly when he says: "you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18).
James Perception. James regarded as an Advent sign the social injustice experienced by laborers who were paid unfair wages, or sometimes not paid at all by greedy rich landowners (James 5:1-9). He urges Christians to be patient because "the coming of the Lord is at hand . . . the Judge is standing at the doors" (James 4:8).
Christian Centuries. Throughout the centuries there have been Christians who, like Paul, Peter, John, and James, have seen in certain contemporary happenings precursory signs heralding the Return of Christ. Luther, for example, worked hastily in 1530 to complete his German Bible translation because he feared that Christ would return before the completion of his work. "For it is certain from the Holy Scriptures," he wrote, "that we have no more temporal things to expect. All is done and fulfilled: the Roman Empire is at the end; the Turk has reached his highest point; the pomp of papacy is falling away and the world is cracking on all sides almost as if it would break and fall apart entirely."3
4. Different Perceptions of the Advent Signs
The above sampling of testimonies indicates that though many Christians have shared a common conviction that the Advent signs were being fulfilled in their own time, they derived such a conviction from observing different religious, political, and social developments of their times.
This fact suggests that no hard-and-fast rule can be drawn regarding which specific signs are being fulfilled at any given time or at different historical periods. What Paul perceived as being a sign of the times may not have been the same event that impressed John or, later on, Luther, you or me.
Past Disappointments. Some may question the legitimacy of contemporizing the signs of the Parousia because such efforts have proved disappointing in the past. Unquestionably, there have been in the past misguided attempts to calculate the date of the Parousia on the basis of imaginative prophetic interpretations of contemporary happenings. Such sensational predictions have undermined the faith in the Advent Hope and have encouraged skepticism about the reality of Christs Coming
Misguided attempts to life the veil of secrecy from Gods future must not detract from the legitimate contemporizing of the Advent signs. Faith and hope in the Second Coming of the Lord can only remain a living expectation if they are sustained by reassuring signs.
A Sign of Divine Wisdom. This conclusion is obviously unacceptable to persons like Lindsey who view the Advent signs as unique events which are to take place only immediately before the Second Advent and not throughout the entire course of Christian history. Such a view ignores the fact that Jesus Himself, as noted earlier, contemporized the signs of His Coming by relating them directly to His disciples and His generation.
Moreover, is it not reflective of divine wisdom to have given signs which could find a degree of fulfillment in every age? Have not the Advent signs helped believers throughout history to face trials and sufferings with the assurance that ". . . the strife will not be long; This day the noise of battle, The next the victors song"?
5. Intensification of the Advent Signs
To acknowledge the existence of the Advent signs throughout Christian history does not mean to deny their intensification before Christs Return. The Scripture teaches, as will be shown in the next three chapters, that the conflict between the forces of God and the forces of Satan will intensify as we draw closer to the Second Advent. Apostasy, lawlessness, and rebellion will increase; suffering and persecution will culminate in a "great tribulation"; the Gospel will be preached as a testimony to all the nations. The intensification of these and other Advent signs offers to believers the assurance that "the end of all things is at hand" (1 Pet 4:7).
The conclusion, then, is that the Advent signs are of a generic nature, designed to discourage date-setting sensationalism and to encourage believers throughout Christian history to look forward to the final consummation of redemption to be accomplished by the Coming of the Lord. To appreciate more fully the relevance of the Advent signs for our life today, we shall consider in the second part of this chapter four vital functions of the Advent signs.
THE FUNCTION OF THE ADVENT SIGNS
1. Advent Signs Nourish Hope and Faith
Signs Withheld. A first vital function of the Advent signs is to nourish the hope and strengthen the faith of believers. Signs and faith are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The determining factor is the attitude of belief or unbelief of the person viewing the signs. Christ withheld signs from "an evil and adulterous generation" (Matt 12:39) because no amount of signs can generate faith in an incredulous and rebellious heart.
Signs Given. Signs, however, serve to strengthen the faith and nourish the hope of those who believe. Thus, after the resurrection Christ presented Himself to His disciples "by many proofs" (Acts 1:3). Those proofs would not automatically convince hardened unbelievers, but did strengthen the faith of the believing disciples.
The attitude of belief or unbelief determines the value and meaning of the Advent signs. To an unbeliever signs are meaningless because he fails to perceive in them the outworking of divine grace or judgment. To a believer, however, signs are meaningful because they provide constant reassurance that God is at work, bringing human history to its consummation. How do the Advent signs strengthen the faith of the believer? The subsequent sections endeavor to answer this very question.
2. Advent Signs Point to the Consummation of Redemption
A Sense of Reassurance. A second important function of the Advent signs is to point forward to the imminent consummation of redemption to be realized at the Second Coming of Christ. To use an analogy, we could compare the Advent signs to highway markers which give the number or the name of the highway, but not to highway mileposts which specify the exact distance to the nearest town.
When I drive from Chicago to Detroit, I know that I need to stay on Interstate 94 to reach my destination. Every time the Interstate 94 sign appears, I am reassured that I am on the right highway to my destination. In the same way the frequent appearance of the Advent signs during the course of history have served to reassure Christians of journeying on the right way "to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb 11:10).
A Sense of Progression. The Advent signs offer to the believer the assurance, not only of journeying on the right way to the Kingdom, but also of drawing near to the end of the journey. The "near," however, is never defined in terms of months or years, because the signs given by Christ are like highway markers and not like highway mileposts.
The believer who sees the appearance of the Advent signs is constantly assured to drawing nearer and nearer to the end of the journey, though he can never measure the exact distance to the End. The Advent signs point toward the nearness of the Advent without pinpointing its exact time. The latter is a secret which God has reserved for Himself (Mark 13:32).4
In conclusion, the Advent signs enable believers to experience a sense of certainty and imminence, that is, the assurance of journeying on the right way and of progressing toward the end of the journey when the meeting with the Lord will take place.
3. Advent Signs Call for Constant Readiness
A third important function of the Advent signs is to call for constant readiness. A prayer I have often heard runs something like this: "Lord, help us to be ready for the day when Thou shalt come." Unintentionally, this prayer reflects a misconception, namely, that what is important in order to be saved is to be ready to receive the Lord, not necessarily today, but on the day when He will come.
Preparation, not Calculation. The function of the Advent signs is to encourage, not calculation, prognostication, or procrastination, but rather constant preparation and watchfulness. If the intention of Bible prophecies was to enable believers to know the exact moment when major events will occur, then these events would have been given in a precise, incontrovertible way. But this has never been the function of prophecy.
Many prophecies were given by Old Testament prophets regarding the First Advent of the Messiah, but when He came there was considerable perplexity regarding the time and manner of His Coming. A major reason is that the intent of the messianic prophecies was to nourish the Advent Hope rather than to satisfy curiosity as to the exact time and manner of Christs Coming.
Daniels Messianic Prophecy. It is remarkable that neither Jesus nor any New Testament writer appealed to Daniels messianic time prophecy (Dan 9:24-27) to prove the messianic claims of Christ. This is all the more surprising in view of the frequent appeals to Old Testament prophecies to prove Christs messiahship. If the time-element of Daniels prophecy had been clearly understood, it would have been cited, especially by Matthew who quotes Old Testament prophecies extensively to prove the messiahship of Jesus.5
The lack of any reference to Daniels prophecy can hardly be explained as unawareness of its existence, because we are told that many calculated on the basis of this prophecy the actual time of the coming of the Messiah. To stop prevailing time-speculations rabbis placed a curse on anyone trying to calculate the time of the coming of the Messiah out of Daniels prophecy.6
Presumably the Gospel writers were aware of the various messianic dates which had been derived from Daniels prophecy, but they refrained from submitting an alternative date. A reason could be that they did not fully comprehend how Daniels sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks were actually fulfilled by Christs life, death, and resurrection. An important principle to remember is that generally prophecies are not fully understood before their actual fulfillment (Dan 9:1-21).
The failure of Christs contemporaries to understand Old Testament prophecies regarding the time and nature of His First Advent cannot be explained merely as lack of faith on their part. Even a man of faith like John the Baptist was confused (Matt 11:3). Anthony A. Hoekema keenly observes that "if believers like John the Baptist could have problems of this sort with predictions about Christs first coming, what guarantee do we have that believers will not have similar difficulties with predictions about Christs second coming?"7
Pointing to, not Pinpointing. This warning is obviously ignored by writers like Lindsey who claim to know exactly how and when all the Advent signs will be fulfilled. For them, the purpose of the signs is not to point to the certainty of Christs Return and to the need for constant readiness, but rather to pinpoint Gods specific timetable of events leading to and following the Second Advent.
In an interview reported in Christianity Today (April 1977), Ward Gasque asked Hal Lindsey regarding his prediction that Christ would return by 1988, "But what if youre wrong?" Lindsey replied: "Well, there is just a split seconds difference between a hero and a bum. I did not ask to be a hero, but I guess I have become one in the Christian community. So I accept it. But if Im wrong about this, I guess Ill become a bum."8
By shrugging his shoulders and saying: "Sorry, I was a bum!", Lindsey hardly reflects a genuine pastoral concern for the millions whom he has misled by his books. Such a lighthearted admission will not help them to pick up the pieces of their disillusionment and to come to a true understanding of Biblical prophecy.
Constant Preparation, not Prognostications. This irresponsible use of Biblical prophecies has caused and is causing disillusionments and disappointments. To avoid future disappointments, it is important to recognize that the function of the Advent signs is to encourage, not sensational prognostications, but constant preparation and watchfulness. The purpose of the signs given by Christ in His Olivet Discourse is not to inform us about the exact time or manner of His Return, but to encourage us to be always ready for that event.
The keynote of the whole discourse is: "Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matt 24:42 cf. vv. 4, 44; 25:13). Constant watchfulness and readiness have been encouraged by the generic nature of the signs of the times which, as noted earlier, have found a degree of fulfillment in every age.
Open to the Unexpected. To watch means to be open every day to witness and experience the unexpected. Genuine Christian living involves a constant response to the unexpected: "Watch therefore, for you do not know."9 Some Christians, like Lindsey, prefer to live in the false security of knowing the future. For them there is little to wait for because they have already preempted the future of any surprise with their agenda of expected End-time events.
Christians who rejoice in the divine favoritism which has granted them secret knowledge and special protection for the coming crisis wait impatiently for divine destruction to fall upon the competitors in the next church, city, or country. The signs which Christ gave to encourage constant watchfulness and readiness have become for them signs that foster a false sense of superiority and security.
4. Advent Signs Reveal the Ongoing Cosmic Controversy
A fourth vital function of the Advent signs is to bear witness to the ongoing cosmic controversy between the forces of Christ and those of Satan. In the parable of the tares Jesus explained that weed and wheat will grow side by side until harvest time at the end of the world (Matt 13:24-30).
The conflict between divine and satanic forces will continue throughout mankinds history. The Advent signs bear witness to this ongoing conflict. Some signs, such as the worldwide Gospel proclamation (Mark 13:10), reveal the outworking of the power of God and the growth of HIs Kingdom in this world.
Signs of Rebellion. Other signs, such as the proliferation of antichristian ideologies, military conflicts among nations, growth of lawlessness, and persecution of Christs followers (Mark 13:6-9), indicate that the powers of evil are at work, attempting to lead the whole world into rebellion and destruction.
The believer who witnesses the signs of the ongoing conflict between divine and satanic forces is constantly challenged to wait eagerly for the day when the Lord will come to terminate this conflict and to establish a new order of justice and righteousness upon this earth (2 Pet 3:12).
Signs of Divine Judgment. Other sings, such as earthquakes, tornados, floods, famines, and pestilences (Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11), reveal Gods judgment upon human wickedness. They are harbingers of the final divine judgment to come. The Advent signs, then, tell us that there is a cosmic conflict going on between divine and satanic forces, but the Lord will soon come as Savior and Judge to bring this conflict to an end.
For the believer, natural or man-made calamities are not a reason for despair, because he knows that nothing can defeat Gods ultimate purpose. God is in control working out His plan of salvation. Unpleasant developments are to be expected and their intensification only serves to show that Christ will soon return to terminate this human drama.
A Call to Repentance. The Advent signs have a message also for unbelievers, summoning them to believe in Christ and be saved. Some incredulous and rebellious unbelievers will not respond to any amount of signs. Christ rebuked such people for failing to discern the signs of the times (Matt 16:3; Mark 8:11). To them the signs only serve to increase their condemnation.
There are people, however, who do respond to the message conveyed by the Advent signs. When these persons hear and/or see disasters, lawlessness, military conflicts, and lives changed by the power of the Gospel, they are led to search for meaning and find hope.
Many people have been led to Christ through the experience of a calamity such as internment in a concentration camp, the loss of a loved one caused by war, a tornado, an earthquake, or a criminal act. In such cases, signs have led to reflection, to a change of behavior and to commitment to the Lord. Signs fulfill their prophetic function of calling sinners to repentance and salvation.
A vital function of the Advent signs is, then, to reveal the ongoing controversy between the Kingdom of God and the powers of evil. This revelation challenges both believers and unbelievers to action. Believers are challenged to wait eagerly for the Lord to come to bring the conflict to an end. Unbelievers are challenged by the same signs to seek for those spiritual realities which cannot be destroyed by natural or man-made calamities.
This chapter has examined the nature and function of the Advent signs. We have found that their nature is of a generic kind, designed to discourage date-setting sensationalism and to encourage constant preparation. The function of the Advent signs is fourfold
First, they serve to nourish the hope and strengthen the faith of believers in every generation.
Second, they point believers constantly forward to the consummation of redemption to be realized by the Coming of the Lord.
Third, they encourage, not calculation or prognostication, but constant preparation and watchfulness.
Lastly, they reveal the ongoing controversy between the Kingdom of God and the powers of evil. This revelation summons believers to wait eagerly for the Coming of the Lord who will bring the conflict to an end.
Some of the questions left unanswered in this chapter are: How are the Advent signs fulfilled in our time? Which signs tell us today that "the coming of the Lord is at hand . . . at the doors"(James 5:8-9)? These questions will now be examined in the following three chapters.
NOTES OF CHAPTER VII
1. Lindsey believes that the parable of the fig tree contains "an extremely important time clue" to calculate the approximate date of Christs visible Return. He finds the time clue in the reference to the putting forth of the first leaves by the fig tree, which he interprets to mean the restoration of national Israel which occurred "on 14 May 1948 . . . when the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again." By interpreting "this generation" of Matthew 24:34 as being "the generation which sees Israel (the fig tree of verse 32) back in the land of Palestine," Lindsey predicted in 1970 that "within forty year or so of 1948, all these things could take place" (The Late Great Planet Earth [Grand Rapids, 1970], pp. 53-54; W. Ward Gasque, "Future Fact? Future Fiction?" Christianity Today 21 [April 15, 1977], p. 40).
2. Emphasis supplied.
3. Cited in T. F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church (Edinburgh and London, 1956), p. 20.
4. Some Christians clearly believe that the function of the Advent signs is to pinpoint our position in time with reference to Christs Return. For example, David Wilkerson writes "Christians rejoice because all the bad news is a series of signposts clearly marked out on their road map to eternity. Each terrifying event more clearly pinpoints out position down the homestretch" (Racing Toward Judgment [New York, 1976], p. 138).
5. See, for example, Matt 1:23, 2:6, 18; 4:4, 6, 15; 11:10; 12:18-19; 13:14-15, 35; 21:5.
6. For a scholarly and comprehensive study on the ancient Jewish attempt to determine the time of the Coming of the Messiah on the basis of Daniel 9:24-27, see Ben Zion Wacholder, "Chronomessianism: The Timing of Messianic Movements and the Calendar of Sabbatical Cycles," Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975), pp. 201ff.
7. Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, 1979), p. 133.
8. W. Ward Gasque (n. 1), p. 40.
9. Robert Jewett rightly points out that "genuine living is response to the unexpected. The parables of Jesus teach an expectant aliveness, a readiness to live intensely in the now, while giving up all our efforts to control tomorrow" (Jesus Against the Rapture. Seven Unexpected Prophecies [Philadelphia, 1979], p. 30).