In the early eighties, at the height of the cold war, many people feared that the end of the world was imminent. Concerned believers studied the Scriptures to see how unfolding events corresponded to the ancient foretelling of the Prophets. The great debate at many a Bible study concerned the relative merits of Pre, Mid and Post tribulation theories. When the Berlin wall fell at the end of the decade and the Communist threat abated, a new theory emerged, the “Pan-Tribulation” theory. Exasperated by contradicting theories and the alarmist pre-occupation of futurists, some clever Bible teacher assured us not to worry over competing tribulation theories because regardless of the potential future scenarios, “it will all pan out in the end.”
Today, we face a new existential threat, radical Islam. And today many of us are taking a second look at end-time prophecy. This is a good thing. The men of Issachar were commended because they understood their times and knew how to respond (See, I Chron. 12:32). Yeshua lamented that His contemporaries could not “discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). The Scriptures devote considerable space describing the cataclysmic end of the age events that precedes Yeshua’s return. It is irresponsible to ignore our own times, hoping that in the end it will all “pan out” as it should.
The Limits of Knowledge
Inordinate pre-occupation with prophetic details also has serious drawbacks. The prognosticators in Yeshua’s day dismissed His Messianic claim because they “knew” that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:4-6). Regarding Yeshua of Nazareth they scoffed,
“Will the Messiah come out of Galilee?” (John 7:41)
Sometimes, because God’s ways are so much higher than ours, prophecy is fulfilled in expected and “unpredictable ways.” Our best thought out scenarios could still miss the mark.
Sometimes believers have ignored the clear warnings of scripture. Yeshua told His disciples,
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
Believers from every generation have been tempted to see their forecast as the exception to the rule. Just last year a popular radio preacher in the United States claimed May 21, 2011 would mark the pre-tribulation rapture of all true believers. This same man made a similar prediction in 1994. When May 21st came and went, he re-adjusted his date to October 21st. He is not the first to make foolish predictions nor likely the last. It makes me wonder, “When will we ever learn?”
The Intent of End Time Prophecy
Knowledge is important but End-Time prophecy is not intended to clear up all our unanswered questions about the future. All three synoptic Gospels include a version of Yeshua’s “Olivet Discourse.” In response to Yeshua’s striking comment that the Temple would be destroyed, His disciples had asked Him,
“Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and the end of the age?“ Matthew 24:3)
All three versions instruct readers to obtain knowledge,
“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” (Luke 21:31, see also Matthew 24:33; Mark 13:29)
There are some things we should be looking for and when we see them, if we have familiarized ourselves with the Scriptures we will know what is shortly to come to pass. However, more often Yeshua exhorts us to “Take Heed.” Yeshua’s message is not so much about knowledge we should obtain as it is about attitudes we must develop. Yeshua’s end-time prophecy is calling disciples to prepare their hearts more than it is to fill their heads.
He reminds us that when we hear of wars and rumors of wars – do not be afraid. This is critical for this hour. As someone who has tasted just a little bit of war in 2006 I can testify, war is frightening. But even as the missiles were falling around my wife and I, we had amazing peace. It is not that we are brave, but we discovered that in such a time of need, His grace is sufficient. Does anyone really know when the next war will start? This does not stop the rumors from constantly swirling – to live in Israel is to constantly face “rumors of war.” So many rumors, even passed on by sincere believers do little more than contribute to fear mongering. Yeshua assures us, “Do not be terrified” (Matthew 24:6; Mark 13:6; Luke 21:9).
Yeshua also warns us, “Do not be deceived” (Matthew 24:5,23; Mark 13:5,21; Luke 21:8), “Don’t give up” (Matthew 24:13; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:19, and perhaps most importantly, “Pay attention”:
“Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.” (Mark 13:33-37, see also, Matthew 24:42; Luke 21:36)
Last month, Moshe Morrison explained that the Scriptures often employ the rhetorical device of repeating a word twice “to draw our attention to something” (See, “Say it Twice,” Oasis, January 2012). If a double repetition signifies emphasis, how important is it when Yeshua repeats Himself four times?
What Can We Know
No matter how much knowledge we garner, we “do not know when the time will come.”Prepare we must, but more important than knowledge is faith and faithfulness. Who can endure to the end? The one who has knowledge, or the one who is faithful? It seems to me that the Scriptures are purposely and sufficiently vague on the details of the future in order to steer us towards watchfulness, prayer and trust. A watchful servant gathers all the knowledge he can (this is especially important so we will not be deceived) but he knows his trust must be in something greater than his storehouse of knowledge.
The Torah provides an illuminating balance:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.“ (Deuteronomy 29:29)
Our Heavenly Father has reserved the right to keep some things in His secret counsels. Yet He is not a God who desires to keep His servants in the dark. It is His good pleasure to reveal Himself to us (see, Genesis 18:17; Psalm 25:14; Proverbs 3:32; Amos 3:7; John 15:15). What He reveals is in order “that we may do all the words …” of the Torah and all of Scripture. If there is something we need to know to do His will, He will reveal it, but in some cases only when we need to know it. Until then, we watch, we pray, we study and we trust.