I agree with Dr. Creed that the certainty of Christ’s return is central in the New Testament. In addition to the passages he quotes, we could note Acts 1:11: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (NIV).
In Hebrews 9:27–28, the certainty of Christ’s second coming is tightly linked to the fact of his first coming: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
The appeal of the “date setters” is to satisfy curiosity. But attempts to set the date of Christ’s return have always failed. Such dates have come and gone—sometimes with disastrous results. For example, William Miller, a New England farmer, concluded in 1818 from his Bible studies that Christ would return in 1843; later, however, it was said that the precise date would be October 22, 1844. But Christ did not return on that day—a day that became for Miller’s followers “The Great Disappointment.” Others, including Seventh-day Adventists, later reinterpreted this day as having been the beginning of the so-called investigative judgment—a doctrine for which there is no valid scriptural basis, as many Adventists are now beginning to admit.
The New Testament clearly teaches that no one can know the exact time when Christ is coming again. According to Mark 13:32, no one knows that day or that hour except the Father. The uncertainty of the time of Christ’s second coming is further underscored by passages like Matthew 25:13 (“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”) and Luke 12:40 (“You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him”). Texts of this sort clearly forbid setting dates for the exact time of Christ’s return.
Dr. Creed mentions with disapproval the attempt to set an approximate date for the Second Coming by identifying Israel with the fig tree of Matthew 24:32. From the reference to “this generation” in verse 34, some conclude that the return of Christ must occur within 40 years of 1948, the date of the establishment of the modern state of Israel. But look more closely at this contention.
It is commonly agreed by evangelical interpreters, to be sure, that the fig tree Jesus cursed (see Matt. 21:18–22) did stand for the nation of Israel—a nation which at that time revealed many leaves of outward religious observances but no fruit of genuine godliness. In Matthew 24:32, however, Jesus uses the figure of the fig tree purely as an illustration: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree; as soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” To find a reference to Israel in this text is arbitrary, particularly in view of the parallel passage, Luke 21:29: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees.”
Jesus is simply saying, “When you see leaves on a fig tree—or any tree, for that matter—you know that summer is near. Similarly, when you see the kinds of signs I have been talking about, you know that my return is near.” To say that in these words Jesus is referring to the future occupation of Palestine by the nation of Israel is to read something into the text.
What are these signs Jesus referred to? The New Testament poses the following, among others: tribulation, apostasy, antichrist, the proclamation of the gospel to all nations, and the salvation of the fulness of Israel. A common misunderstanding is to think of these signs as present exclusively at the end time just before Christ’s return. Actually, however, all the New Testament signs characterize the entire period between Christ’s first and second coming. Apostasy and tribulation, for example, have been present in the church from its beginning. In his first and second epistles, John indicates that antichrists were in the church already in his day. This is not to deny that these signs will probably come to a climactic manifestation near the end of history (in the form of a great Tribulation and a final personal Antichrist). But these signs were always present in some form, and therefore, Christians throughout history from the first century on have had to be ready for Christ’s return.
The signs of the times and the uncertainty of the exact time of Christ’s return, therefore, call us to constant watchfulness. The word commonly translated watch (grēgoreō) means “to be awake” or “to be alert.” The word points to a spiritual and moral readiness for Christ’s return. This means we must cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12), and that we must use whatever gifts the Lord has given us for the advancement of his kingdom (Matt. 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). Also, we must build on the one foundation of Jesus Christ with materials that will not be burned up in the fire of the judgment, but will survive (1 Cor. 3:10–15).
We do not know the exact time of the Parousia. While we await it, we must all live “as though Christ died yesterday, arose this morning, and is coming again tomorrow.”
ANTHONY A. HOEKEMADr. Walvoord is president of Dallas Theological Seminary, Texas.
Most sober scholars of biblical prophecy agree with Dr. Creed’s thesis that many current writers are adopting sensational interpretations of Scripture to gain the attention of the Christian world and sell their books. In the process, they often disregard proper safeguards when expounding Scripture.
Modern liberals discard specific fulfillment of prophecy on the ground that no one knows the future, even God. Conservative interpreters of the Bible recognize that about 25 percent of the Bible prophesied future events when written, and that perhaps about 50 percent of these prophecies have been literally fulfilled (a major fulfillment being events related to the first coming of Christ).
Conservative expositors are divided on whether we should take literally certain prophecies, specifically those relating to Israel and a future millennial kingdom. For instance, some apply nonliteral interpretation to the Books of Daniel and Revelation to show that the end-time events described there had already been largely fulfilled. Adherents of the premillennial view take prophecy more literally and adopt an interpretive approach that usually regards end-time events as future. They find a literal fulfillment of a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth following his Second Advent.
Those who follow premillennial interpretation are again divided into two major classes. Some find current events a specific fulfillment for certain prophecies. Others, more conservative premillennial scholars, believe that literal fulfillment of many of the events of the end time, including the Millennium, is still future. Dr. Creed’s viewpoint in many respects follows the more conservative premillennial interpretation, and we join him in objecting to sensationalism and date setting. In the past, such an approach has been largely discredited by the passage of time. What, then, is a more conservative approach?
Conservative premillennarians believe there is a well-defined program of future events. These include the future fulfillment of a ten-nation confederacy constituting a revival of the Roman Empire as predicted in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. A ruler will arise out of this group of nations who will conquer first three (see Dan. 7:8) and then apparently the other seven countries. From this position of political power he enters a covenant with the nation Israel (Dan. 9:27), intended to exist for seven years. The first half of this seven years is a time of comparative peace. (However, some conservative interpreters believe that Ezekiel 38 and 39, telling of an invasion of Israel by Russia and her allies, is fulfilled in the first half of that seven-year period. Others place it elsewhere.)
In any case, the covenant is broken after being observed for three-and-a-half years, and the leader of the Middle East becomes a world ruler (Dan. 7:23; Rev. 13:7). His world government dominates every country of the world, giving him unprecedented political power. He also claims to be God (Rev. 7:8) and dominates the world economically, so that no one can buy or sell without his authority (Rev. 13:16–17).
None of these particular prophecies can reasonably find literal fulfillment in the past or present.
The period of three-and-a-half years of world government (the second half of the seven-year period conceived of in the covenant), is climaxed by a gigantic world war as countries begin to rebel against the world ruler (Rev. 16:14–16). While this war is still under way (consider Zech. 14:1–4), Christ will return in power and glory (Rev. 19:11–16). Upon his Second Advent, Christ will judge the armies of the world, putting them to death, and in due time will judge living Israel and living Gentiles as well as judge and reward Christian martyrs of the period. Pretribulationists put the Rapture of the church first in this order of end-time events. Posttribulationists make the Rapture and the Second Coming simultaneous.
Conservative interpretation of a premillennial point of view therefore makes impossible the interpreting of major events of the end time as being fulfilled today. Even identifying the ten nations of Daniel and Revelation with the European Common Market is open to question since it includes some countries outside the ancient Roman Empire. In any case, no man has yet dominated the situation where a peace treaty could be imposed upon Israel.
If the Rapture is imminent, as taught in the pretribulational view, clearly there can be no signs of the Rapture today or prior to today. What we are seeing in the world is a preparation for events that will follow the Rapture, not their specific fulfillment.
We grant that we have every reason to believe that we may be moving on toward the end time. And world conditions are right for consummation of God’s prophetic program for this age. Yet to claim detailed fulfillment of minute prophecies involves exegesis of neither history nor Scripture.
On one hand, faithful students of Scripture can deplore the tendency to disbelieve prophecy; such disbelief characterizes not only the secular world but much of the religious world. On the other hand, the sensationalism and wild claims for current fulfillment only do the cause of biblical faith harm as time eventually proves these claims to be wrong. What we need is a keen and scripturally accurate anticipation of the imminent return of Christ, balanced with a conservative view of prophecy that does not indulge in headline-seeking sensationalism.
JOHN E. WALVOORDDr. Hoekema is professor emeritus of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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