Mobbed

During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He  kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”

The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind;. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world. 

These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history.  Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.

But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.

“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).

The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.

In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history,  in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.

The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8:  “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”

The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a  murderer, and  apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.

So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.

So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin.  The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . .  (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).

The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would  be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.

In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.

Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies  — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas  himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not  have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.

So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so  common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England,  the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”

In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world. 

The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.

In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their  complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15).  So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.

Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows  the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need.  Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”

Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves. 

Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.

Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.  

Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God  of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.

AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.

Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?

Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.

Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?

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Gathering

One of the distinctive emphases of the Christian and Missionary Alliance from the beginning was that of “Christ the Coming King.” It was fourfold gospel as presented by Albert Benjamin Simpson. He saw it as part of the truth of the gospel for all times and all places until Jesus returns. He wrote, “The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”

The literal, physical and visible return of Jesus Christ to this world has been a part of the hope of believers in Christ for over two thousand years now. It is something that is to be expected and longed for, as we grow in Christ. Yet I fear that the reality and impetus of this hope has waned in the church over the past generation in the lives of many. So there is still a need for renewed preaching and teaching on the return of Jesus to the church today, lest our hearts grow lukewarm and comfortable here and our hopes are turned to things that are second best rather than the best that is yet to come. And I give what follows from an unabashedly premillennial and posttribulational perspective, as a part of ethical disclosure of what is to come. If you come from a different perspective, please read this with a willingness to understand the perspective I put forth.

Jesus himself gave strong and clear predictions as to what would happen before his coming in glory. What he has said has been written down, passed down and preserved for us today, so that we would not become distracted and deceived as to the true hope for our broken and fallen world. In the week that preceded his death on the cross and resurrection he spoke to Peter, James and John of his return in glory to this world. This teaching session happened on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem and the Temple, probably around March or April of A.D. 30. Three men heard these words, and the account of Mark is probably mostly that of the apostle Peter, who was there to hear these things. So here is what he had to say:

“But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days. And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’

And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory. And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.” (Mark 13:14-27, Dale’s sight translation.)

Before the return of Jesus Christ there will be unparalleled religious deception in the person of the Antichrist. Make no mistake, he is a real person who is yet to be definitely and openly revealed to this world. His appearance will then foment the great persecution of believers that will come before the end. This will be the time of the the Antichrist who is to come. This will be the worldwide worship of a single wicked man, and it will be imposed worldwide by deception and by military power. There will then be a particular blatant attempt to set up this worship of the Antichrist in Jerusalem itself.

Jesus starts out this part of the prophecy with a statement that would be strange if it stood alone: ““But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand . . .” ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ is an allusion to the previous prophecy of Daniel 9:27. It is considered to have been fulfilled by many in 168 BCE when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes caused the regular Jewish sacrifice to cease in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and set up pagan worship there. But Jesus brought this up again many years afterward, and he evidently didn’t believe that it was completely fulfilled at that time. Rather, he points to a fulfillment that was yet to come in the future. And the early church definitely believed that there was a fulfillment in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the pagan standards,which in themselves were idols, were raised over the Holy City.

But there would be one that would be yet to come, a final appearance in the coming of the Antichrist. The ‘Abomination of Desolation’ seems to be the description of when an idol is raised on the Temple Mount in contradiction to the worship of the one true God in Jerusalem. It is something that is an utter and destructive abomination and affront to the one true God. So Jesus is predicting that this would happen yet again in the future before his return. And the parallel passage in II Thessalonians 2:3 seems to point to this as well. This is where the apostle Paul wrote, “[the day of the Lord] will not come unless the falling away comes first and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who will stand against and lift himself up over everything that is called God or something to be worshipped, so that he sits himself down in the Temple of God and sets himself up to be God.” In fact, much of II Thessalonians 2:1-12 can be considered to be parallel to Mark 13:14-23. It’s not unreasonable to see the apostle Paul in II Thessalonians 2:1-12 expanding on and applying these very statements of Jesus from the Olivet Discourse, and indeed, providing us with an apostolic commentary on this part of the Olivet Discourse.

Jesus
Mark 13:14-23
Paul
I Thessalonians 2:1-12
Abomination of desolation – 13:14 Antichrist setting himself up in Temple – 2:3
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the antichrists and false prophets to come
13:22
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the Antichrist to come
2:9-12

So then, it’s possible also to see, as many do, that the Antichrist will be the ultimate example of many antichrists who have come throughout history. I’ve heard others say that it seems like there have been candidates for the post throughout history, and that Satan seems to have had someone eligible for the post throughout history. It’s reasonable to think so, when you consider

  • Adolf Hitler: He proclaimed himself the emissary of the Almighty and the Founder of the Reich. Nazi soldiers died invoking his name.
  • Joseph Stalin: His propaganda was that he was the wisest, most beloved and genial man of the world, and that he was the only one who was caring for the poor and protecting the oppressed.
  • Mao Tse Tung: He proclaimed himself the ultimate power and accepted worship as people bowed before him, and there was a widespread belief that he healed.

And so on. It’s reasonable from scripture to see that the last great counterfeit of Satan, his great masterpiece of cunning, will use demonic power to deceive people into believing his self deification. And at any time the question must come to believers to consider whether the stage is being set for the appearance of the Antichrist. But then Jesus goes on to give more explicit instructions on what to do when this happens. The appearance of the Antichrist will then mean the beginning of a worldwide wave of persecution, beginning at Jerusalem. This will be the start of the period of worldwide catastrophes, otherwise known as the Great Tribulation. So these are the directions that Jesus gave: “ . . . then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days.”

The sign to flee will simply be the appearance of the Antichrist in Jerusalem as he sets himself up as God. It looks like it will be on a restored Temple, but it may well be that in the place of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, without necessarily being a physical Temple there may be sufficient to trigger fulfillment of the prophecies. But this prophecy was taken by the Christians in Jerusalem in AD 70 as the sign to flee to the town of Pella, but that doesn’t seem to be the complete fulfillment of the prophecy. The flight from Jerusalem come in a situation where no hesitancy is possible. The prayer for that not to happen on a Sabbath is a real recognition of the restriction of services to travellers in that time, such as the current lack of activity in modern Israel on the Sabbath.  And the horrors of that time will make the blessings of motherhood seem like a liability. These statements of Jesus show that the tremendous difficulty, brutality and horror of what was to come. The escape from persecution was not an end in itself, though, but rather itself a determination not to be caught in a compromising position.

The promise of Jesus is that God will cut short those days of persecution and the series of catastrophes to come. The Ruler of history will intervene to end history at its lowest depth of human depravity under Satanic direction. The period will be allowed to show what happens when God allows people to choose freely, and the refusal of mankind to receive his truth will erupt in depravity, deceit and violence without parallel. But God will not allow this time of evil to continue forever.  It will happen only for a short time and then the end will be final. Though from our perspective these words may not be comforting, for the people suffering in that time there will be great comfort in the knowledge that God is cutting it short.

Jesus went on, though, to tack on strong commands not to believe the false Messiahs and prophets to come. It’s noteworthy that he changed to the plural here instead of zeroing in on the singular Antichrist and false prophet that are in the book of Revelation: “And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

So why did Jesus speak in the plural of false Messiahs and false prophets rather than in the singular, like in the book of Revelation, where there is one Beast (the Antichrist) and False Prophet? I think that it comes down to simply this: his warning not to believe a person who points out that the Messiah is a particular person and in a particular place until his visible return before the whole world applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return before the whole world. And his warning not to believe them no matter what apparent miracles they might do applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return. This would be consistent with the apostolic guidance here, from the apostle John himself – one of the eyewitnesses to what Jesus was saying here, and the author of I John and the book of Revelation. “Children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heart that the Antichrist is coming, and now many antichrists have come to pass. From that we know that it is the last hour . . .” (I John 2:18). “Every spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, who you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.” I John 4:3

So at that time, when everything seems to be going toward the worst, the very best will happen. Jesus Christ himself will return gather together his people for himself. It’s understated here that this will cut short the apparent triumph of the false Messiah, but the emphasis is that the time of evil will end for the people of God. He will come to end the rule of evil and set up his kingdom over all the earth. They will be gathered together to be with him forever, and I understand this to be what is normally termed the post-tribulation rapture, though my preferred term is the Final Gathering, or the Gathering.

There will be unprecedented signs in the heavens before the Gathering takes place. The ignorance of the cosmic signs in the common preaching and teaching of the end times that are throughout scripture and which Jesus himself mentioned is amazing to me. But this thread of prophecy continues from the Old Testament prophets clear through to the end of the New Testament, and, with the emphasis that Jesus himself gave it, it deserves renewed scrutiny. I think that the reason it has been underemphasized in the past was the desire, with the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture, to define the word imminent in regard to the coming as ‘with no preceding signs.’ But, with the following verses, I think that imminent needs to be defined as ‘impending’ and as the next major event in God’s plan of salvation for his people.

So here is what Jesus had to say in that passage about the coming signs in the heavens:

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’”

There can be no question that Jesus is not making a scientific cosmological statement here, but taking up the Old Testament language from the book of Joel and elsewhere to describe what will happen at the close of the time of the final catastrophes, or, what we may call the Great Tribulation. Here are the places in the Old Testament where the signs are predicted: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, and Joel 3:15. All are signs of the wrath of God, and they are also repeated in the sixth seal of Revelation 6:12-17. The language that scripture uses here and elsewhere is simply describing, in metaphorical fashion, how these events will appear to someone who is standing on earth. It’s hard to tell exactly what the signs will be in scientific terms, since Jesus is not here giving a scientific explanation. The implication is that these phenomena will be divinely caused, and that they will be objective, visible phenomena that an earthly observer will be able to recognize them from their description. These signs, in addition to what Jesus has already described, will be visible signs that the end is near. 

After the coming signs, Jesus will return visibly to the earth as the Lord of glory. The entire earth will see him in his unveiled majesty and glory, and there will be no mistaking that it is him returning just as he said. This is his simple statement: “And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory.”

This will be the same return that was just as the angels predicted at his ascension into heaven:   This will be the same Jesus of Nazareth, who walked our earth, lived with us and taught in our towns and cities. This will be the same person who was crucified, resurrected and seen by the apostles for forty days after his resurrection. He will not then be coming in the humble circumstances as he did, but with the kingly, eternal glory that he received at this exaltation. It will be impossible for anyone on the earth not to recognize who it really is, and he will be visible to everyone on the earth as he is returning. Here is the fuller description of his visible appearance from the gospel of Matthew, from his parallel account of the Olivet discourse:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will wail, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

At his visible return Jesus Christ will receive his people left on earth to himself. There will definitely be a rapture at his visible, worldwide return! And we have the word of Jesus himself about it:

“And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.”

Personally, I’m not fond of the term ‘rapture’ for this part of the return of Jesus. The term describes the action of being caught up, but the term that I prefer for his aspect of his return is ‘The Gathering.’ And I think if we consider the scriptures on his coming, there are a number of other scriptures that place the gathering of his people together here, at his visible appearance. And it’s noteworthy that Jesus’s emphasis here on the gathering of his people to himself, not on judgment. In several other passages the two aspects of gathering of Christ’s people together to him and judgment of the unbelieving world in opposition to the return of Jesus are joined together. It’s noteworthy that the metaphor of harvest and threshing is applied to the Gathering and pressing wine is applied to the judgment of the wicked opposing the return of Jesus in these passages elsewhere in scripture.

The first passage where I think that you can find the prophetic thread about the Gathering is an Old Testament passage, in the book of Isaiah. I’ve never seen this passage cited in any previous discussion of the rapture, though I’ve seen it mentioned in the side references to the New Testament passages that mention the rapture. I was definitely surprised one day years ago when I was working my way through the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew and then the Greek from Alfred Rahlfs’s version of the Septuagint (the common Greek Old Testament in the first century AD). Here’s what Isaiah 27:12-13 had to say (Dale’s sight translation):

“In that day the LORD will thresh from the torrents of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt,
And you will be gathered up one by one, sons of Israel!
And on that day a great trumpet will be sounded,
And those who were as good as dead will come from the land of Assyria and the outcasts from the land of Egypt,
And they will worship the LORD on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem!”

Here, in this passage, we find the common elements of the Gathering that are later mentioned throughout the New Testament. These may be omitted or underemphasized due to what emphasis the speaker or author had at the time, but they are common themes:

  • Judgment of the wicked depicted as pressing wine in a winepress 
  • The sounding of a great trumpet
  • Gathering of the people of God to Jerusalem out of great distress and affliction depicted as a harvest

I don’t think that it’s too much at all to see this passage as the passage where Jesus was taking up, explaining and expanding the Old Testament promises to his people for all ages. It’s also noteworthy that the word used for ‘gather’ here in the Septuagint is the same verb as Jesus used in the passage in Matthew and Mark and in the noun form in I Thessalonians 2:1, where the apostle Paul discusses “ . . .  the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him . . .” The word itself is not either terribly common or uncommon but I think that it is significant that it carries through in these passages.

Then there is the similarity of the I Thessalonians 4 passage, which is often cited as the authority for a pre-tribulation rapture, but is notably similar to the passages in the Olivet discourse where Jesus describes his appearance before the world. There are some common elements, especially between the Matthew 24 and Mark 13 descriptions of the visible appearance of the Lord from heaven.

“We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you would be pained as those who have no hope. Because if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God will bring those who have fallen asleep in Jesus with him.”

“For I have this to say to you – based on an utterance of the Lord – that we who are alive who are left until the coming of the Lord will not get ahead of those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, in a cloud, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven. And the dead in Christ will rise first, then those of us who are alive and left around will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort each other with these words!” I Thessalonians 4:13-18

So Paul emphasis on gathering and on resurrection is more detailed about those who have died in Christ being resurrected as the same time as living believers are caught up and gathered together from the earth. Here are the similarities in the three passages. These s

Jesus
speaking personally as the Lord
Paul
basing his explanation on a direct utterance of the Lord
Lord coming in clouds Lord coming in a cloud
People who are alive are caught up by angels to be with the Lord People who are alive are caught up to be with the Lord (agency not explained)
Emphasis on rescue of living believers Emphasis on resurrection of living believers with believers who have died
Great trumpet (Matthew 24:31) Great trumpet

There have been a number of attempts to find a pre-tribulation rapture in the book of Revelation, but, in light of the previous passages, it’s easy enough to find the post-tribulation rapture:

“And I looked, and see there, a white clouds, and sitting on the cloud someone who was like a Son of Man, who had a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the Temple and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Put forth your sickle and reap, because the hour has come to reap, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ And the one who was sitting on the cloud put forth his sickle on the earth, and the earth was harvested.” (Revelation 14:14-17).

Then, immediately following that, there comes the emphasis on judgment that is also a part of the return of Jesus:

“And another angel came out of the Temple which is in heaven who also carried a sharp sickle. And another angel came from the altar who had charge of the fire, and he cried out with a great voice to the angle with the sharp sickle, ‘Put forth your sharp sickle, and gather the grapes from the vine of the earth, because the bunches of grapes have come to fruition. And the angel put forth his sickle on the earth, and he gathered up from the vine of the earth and he threw them into the winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was stomped down outside the city, and the blood of the winepress flowed up to the horses’ bridles for about 300 kilometers!” (Revelation 14:17-20).

And it’s not too much at all to see this as then pointing to the climax of the book of Revelation, to the description of the Lord’s visible coming with his people and the judgment upon the world which opposes him:

“And I saw heaven opened, and see there! A white horse! and the person who was sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with righteousness. And his eyes are like a flame of fire, and many crowns are upon his head.  He has a name written down which no one but he himself knows,, and he is dressed with a tunic dipped in blood, and his name is called, ‘The Word of God.’ And his armies in heaven follow him on white horses and are clothed in clean white linen. And a sharp sword comes from his mouth, so that he strikes down the nations, and he shepherds them with a rod of iron.  And he stomps down the winepress of the wine of the wrath of the almighty God. And he has on his tunic and on thigh a name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” Revelation 19:11-16 emphasis on judgment

Just by way of passing – there are some scriptures, such as Revelation 3:10, outside the normal passages which cited as evidence for the pre-tribulation rapture. The thing is that they do not demand the interpretation that they apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, it’s a circular form of exegesis to apply them to a pre-tribulation rapture, since it’s necessary to assume a pre-tribulation rapture to see them as applying to a pre-tribulation rapture.

So then, the goal of our hope in Christ is coming closer every and every day. The Lord’s return is nearer now than it was a moment ago, a day ago or a year ago. The real future of the believer in Christ is there with him. With the return of the Lord Jesus coming nearer and nearer, it is crucial for each one of us to settle the issues of salvation and Lordship. So if you have never made a heart commitment to Jesus Christ, now is the time to do so! And if you have, make sure that he remains as the Lord of your life until the end. Don’t waver from the hope that will bring such unspeakable and unimaginable joy and reward. And as that day comes closer, if you have made certain that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, live each day in love and holiness, in the image of Jesus himself. That will demonstrate to him and before all the world that you believe with all your heart that Jesus is returning!

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I was first persuaded that the post-tribulation rapture was the scriptural teaching by the exposition of J. Sidlow Baxter in his volume Explore the Book. Later I became aware of these more scholarly works:

George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture.

Robert H. Gundry, Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism.

The Wikipedia article gives a reasonable summary: Post-tribulation rapture.

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One thing that many people may not be aware of: there is a great hymn on the return of Jesus which is thoroughly post-tribulation and co-authored by none other than Charles Wesley himself! Unfortunately, I think that the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture in the past century and a half has often deprived the church of this great hymn of the Second Coming of Jesus. The hymn “Lo! He comes with clouds descending,” is decidedly post-tribulation in its outlook. Charles Wesley himself reworked the lyrics to the present form. Here the Cambridge Singer perform Lo! he comes with clouds descending. And here are the lyrics and history.

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Amen, come, Lord Jesus!

A Preview of Coming Contractions

A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, once wrote, “The Second  Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and blessed hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”

During the 1970s through the early 1980s there was widespread discussion of the events that would lead to the return of the Lord Jesus, but it seemed to have waned since then. Much of the discussion of the end times then seem to try too hard to identify contemporary events with scriptural statements, and the speculation tended to try too hard to set a specific date or year. Yet the point of scripture is not to try to work out the time too precisely and exactly, but rather to live according to the promise of his return. Despite what tendencies to date setting and controversy over differences of understanding of the end time, the believer in Jesus Christ can continue with unshaken faith in the word of the Lord who promised his return. There is no reason to be distracted or dismayed by the circumstances which lead up to that time, to be concerned how others are thinking about it, but to continue in complete and utter confidence that he is returning. The point is that we are not to try to find our exact spot on the timeline of the last days, but rather to live each day as if we anticipated Jesus’s return that very day.

The Lord Jesus himself provided a long explanation of what would happen in the days that would lead up to his return from heaven to take up his dominion over the whole world. It is in the passage known as the Olivet discourse, the passage which is the bridge between the prophecies of the Old Testament that apply to the second coming and the prophetic passages in the New Testament epistles and the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, the culmination of Biblical prophecy. In this teaching session shortly before the grand events of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the culmination of his first coming, he gave the preview of what would happen in his second coming in glory. He gathered together strands of Old Testament prophecy and brought them together, to explain what would happen with events in history that would happened up to and after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and even more to the final intensification and domination of evil before the actual visible appearance of the Lord Jesus in glory before the entire world in his return.

Going back to what Jesus was actually saying will take us beyond ‘chart based’ eschatalogical teaching of a previous age, where there were too many attempts to plot out our moment in time on a map of history made from some rather iffy interpretations of some scriptures. We rather need to look to what all the scriptures say on the subject, not to try to pinpoint our place on a timeline on a chart. Rather, no matter in which age we life, no matter where we find ourselves on the timeline before his return, we can find in his teaching that Jesus left not so much as a set of special instructions for those who were to remain here until the last minute, but rather an abiding attitude of expectation for believers in all ages and in all places of looking forward to his return. And with that all those who truly believe in him and look forward to his return can agree that his expectation for us was not having right opinions about the order of events and the timeline, but rather a continuous faithfulness. The clear expectation of the Lord Jesus as for the believer who may live in the last few years, months and days before his return would be as faithful as any believer as in the years before, and that any believer who would die without seeing his return during his or her lifetime would remain as faithful during his or her life regardless of whether he or she lived until that moment. So with the realization of that expectation, let us turn to the first part of the Olivet discourse in Mark 13:3-13.

“And while he was seated on the Mount of Olives facing the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew privately privately asked him, ‘Tell us when these things will happen, and what the sign will be when all these things are about to come to their conclusion.’ And Jesus began to tell them, ‘See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many. When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions. But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first. And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit. And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed. And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”

So Jesus started out to speak about what would happen, and his first caution is this: The believer in Jesus Christ must take guard not to be led into error away from the truth of Jesus Christ. The sane appraisal of  truth according to the scriptures will be the only guide through the confusion and deception that will come up0n the entire earth. But again, this is simply the same kind of steadfastness and discernment that Jesus has always expected of all believers everywhere and in every time.

The first warning Jesus gave was against false Messiahs who would arise. He warned his followers first of all neither to believe nor to follow them. They are counterfeits of the true Lord, and with this saying he lets his people know that there will be a series of pretenders who would come in the months and years to come. His warning was not to scare or intimidate but to give his people the information that they needed to avoid being taken in by the counterfeits.

Note the strong warning that Jesus gave first in verse 5: “See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many.”  This was a warning that began to come true in the years after he first gave it. In Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70, there were two deceivers mentioned in the book of Acts, Judas of Galilee and the Egyptian for whom the Roman centurion mistook the apostle Paul. Josephus, the historian who chronicled the fall of Jerusalem, reported the other false Messiahs that popped up as the Roman legions under Vespasian and Titus ravaged Palestine and burned and sacked Jerusalem itself. The apostle John could then write a few years later, “ . . . just as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have popped up . . .” (I John 4:18). And throughout the years since there have been many, many false prophets and false Messiahs who have arisen, so the warning of Jesus has been relevant for every age in which his people have lived.

The thing that we need to remain aware of, then, if we are the followers of Jesus Christ today, is that such deceivers still pop up all over the place, in many times and places. There are so many names of leaders of cults who could be put here, but the truth is that there will still be false Messiahs and false prophets coming until the day comes when the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, makes himself known. Over history, there have been many political false Messiahs, such as Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong Il. But there have been also many religious leaders who have been unmasked as false Messiahs such as David Koresh, Jim Jones and Father Divine, and where there are the trappings of the personality cult within a church we can find that some of them will come from within the ranks of the professing church itself. They may start out as leaders who seem to have a solid grasp of the gospel and compassion and insight to help many, even out of poverty and the gutter, but eventually they begin to abandon the truth of scripture and arrogate to themselves the personal power and authority over the lives of their followers and demand the worship of others even as they claim Messianic titles for themselves. All these pretenders, though, are only foreshadows of the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, and we can see him pretty clearly to be the first horseman of the Apocalypse, the final lie and counterfeit for which the entire unbelieving world will fall.

So then, the first consideration for the believer in Jesus Christ is to take these sobering words of Jesus to heart. He has already warned us that there will be false Messiahs, and that we are not to follow them. And in a world where the discernment of truth and error among believers seems to be getting lower, when people may throw up their hands in frustration and say, “How can I tell what’s what in this situation? Who am I to judge?”, the expectation of Jesus is still that his followers will not allow false Messiahs to deceive them. The false Messiahs of our age may hold up false hopes, false visions, false and grandiose visions and delusions of changing the world and bringing about a utopia on this earth – and each false Messiah also shares his own false eschatology – the false view of the coming kingdom – what it will be and how it will come. But certainly the expectation of Jesus remains that his people will not allow these false Messiahs to deceive them. And for this he provides his own Word and the opportunity to remain steadfast with him: “So then, as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, conduct your life in him, as you are rooted and built up in him and are made stable in the faith just as you were taught and as you overflow with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7, Dale’s sight translation).

But even after Jesus gave his warning against the the false Messiahs, he gave another warning. He warned us that the upheaval and turmoil of this world is not to alarm us unduly as it continues onward. This world will continue to experience catastrophes in various times and places, and indeed these may be expected to accelerate as the end approaches. But the direction of Jesus is that what we see happening around us is not to give us undue alarm. Here is what he said again: “When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions.”

So after Jesus gave the warning not to be deceived by false Messiahs, and then he gave the warning not to take the turmoil of national conflicts and strife and natural disasters in themselves to be an indication that the end has come at that moment. Certainly his words mean, with the use of the metaphor of a woman beginning to experience the first painful contractions of labor, that these events are moving forward to the end, but not that they are themselves the indication that that moment is the moment of the end. The labor contractions themselves foretell the birth, but they are not themselves the birth.

This warning was well suited for the generation of believers in Christ which lived in the years following his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem and its surroundings. There was certainly an application to them, since they saw famines, earthquakes and political conflicts in the days before the destruction of the Holy City and the Second Temple. Yet the witness of history is that they continued steadfast to Christ and their witness to him despite what they were seeing around them, and that they continued to win others to Christ in those times where it appeared that the end might happen at any minute if they looked just at the conflicts and disasters around them.

This warning also applies to our generation as well. There have been devastating earthquakes and famines in the days since I first came to Christ in 1974, as well as wars and revolutions around the globe. But even though we might wish that they were themselves the coming of the end when we were in their midst, we can know that Jesus does not want us to view them as an indication that the moment of the end has come. But certainly all these upheavals will give way to the final upheavals to take place after the appearance of the Antichrist – the other three horsemen of the Apocalypse, of war, famine and death. The indication is rather that there will the a clear intensification and acceleration of these upheavals which will follow the appearance of the Antichrist. And I think that this is very clear that there is nothing that we can do to prevent war and disasters entirely until Jesus returns – so while there might be particular wars and disasters that could be prevented, we must recognize that the elimination of war and other disasters as a fantasy. And in the meantime, we are not to be misled by the troubles in this world, since they will occur, but these conflicts and catastrophes are not in themselves the irrefutable signs of the end. Rather, we need to hold off any identification of the end until the Antichrist is openly unveiled to the world – and I think that as we go on in this passage and throughout the scriptures, we will find that for the discerning believer the Antichrist will be hard to misidentify.

Therefore, from what Jesus has already said, the knowledge of the truth is our firm safeguard against being deceived and against being fearful as the times wind down toward the end. The truth of Jesus and his Word will guard us against false hopes and fear and despair as history comes to its culmination.

First of all, the knowledge of the truth requires a heart commitment to the truth of Christ in the Word of God above all, above all human tradition and the rumor and rush of the crowd. The attitude of wise and discerning faith comes from the trust in the Word of God, the written scriptures of the God of the Bible, and all other attitudes, ideas, teachings, opinion pieces and blog posts must be tested by that – and I do fear that many professed believers are too shallow or superficial in their own knowledge of the scriptures to have wisdom and discernment in this age.  Anything less will be shaky and unsure as the times become worse and the deceptions grow more seductive and severe. This heart commitment to the truth calls for us not to have a critical attitude toward our faith – that’s the wicked and arrogant advice that those who called themselves ‘Higher Critics’ (scare quotes intended) gave to undiscerning believers back in the nineteenth century. Rather, a person growing in his or her knowledge of the scriptures will find himself or herself looking at everything else in life with their mental and moral evaluative capabilities guided by the Word of God.

Just as much, the knowledge of the truth requires the constant prayer for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to lead us and keep on leading us into the truth of Christ. The humble prayer for the Spirit of truth to open the Word of God to us and show us the Christ of the scriptures will certainly be answered. And just as much, we need to seek for him to guide us away from the character flaws which keep us from receiving the truth of Christ. Like the ancient prayer, let us ask  —

“From cowardice, which shrinks from new truth,
From laziness, which is content with half truth,
From arrogance, that thinks it knows all truth —
O God of truth, deliver.”

And so, the knowledge of the truth will keep us from falsehood as we learn, follow and hold to the truth of Jesus. While the truth ignored leads to enslavement to falsehood, the knowledge of the true Jesus will keep us from caving to the falsehoods that may come.  As we learn the truth of God in the scriptures, it will enable us to recognize false teachers and Messiahs as they may come. And the truth of the scriptures will also keep us from being deceived by or attaching undue importance to the events of this world. Evil times will grow to their worst, to unparalleled depths, but they will only precede the arrival of the best of times, the unparalleled good that will arrive when Jesus Christ returns in glory to this earth.

So with all the warnings that Jesus has given of the turbulent times to come in this world, he has also given directions to his people as to what they are to do in the face of the difficulties and wickedness. In all situation the believer in Christ must stand firm for Christ. In all ages perseverance to the end is what he expects. In all ages he expects his people to remain firm and forthright in their confession of him as Lord and Savior before this world as it goes through its pangs of apparent death and contractions of coming life.

Even if the whole world goes in the direction of open and naked rejection of Jesus Christ, the believer in Christ must remain firm in commitment to Christ. Times of great unpopularity and outright persecution and martyrdom will come and go before the final, ultimate persecution and widespread martyrdom. The steadfast commitment to Christ in the midst of resistance to and suppression of the truth by a world which has been rejecting Jesus will mark the true, faithful disciple to Jesus, the one that Jesus chooses and accepts as part of his people for all eternity.

Jesus himself warned that there will be persecution throughout this world, but that the world will eventually be reached with the gospel. He said, “But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first.” We know upon his own word that the evangelization of this world will eventually be completed to God’s satisfaction. There will finally be no longer a time when anyone in the world can have the excuse of ignorance of the gospel.

So here by the word of Jesus himself we know that his church will finally succeed in the mission that he gave it. I’ve heard several rants by young pastors, where they’ve berated their helpless congregations sitting before them that ‘the church hasn’t reached the world,’ or changed and transformed the world. I’m not sure what convictions that they had about eschatology, though they were serving in a denomination that is supposed to be premillenial and believes in the literal coming of the Lord Jesus. But the word of Jesus here is not that one congregation, but that the entire church would eventually reach the world with the gospel. And his expectation is not that the world would be changed or transformed. Mark this carefully!! Jesus does not here give any assurance that his church will ever change or transform the world when the world has heard the gospel. Quite the opposite!

What will happen after the world has heard the gospel of Jesus is that the world will finally reject the truth of the gospel. The world will not be transformed or changed finally, but the world will reject the gospel finally. And then the world will give in to the final deception of the Antichrist. This will be the natural result of the rejection of the truth of the gospel – the world will foolishly come to the acceptance of the ultimate falsehood that Satan concocts for them. Jesus says more about this in this same discourse, but here is how the apostle Paul described what would happen at that time:  “The lawless one will come with the empowerment of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders and with the deceitfulness of iniquity for those who are perishing, because they did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved. And because of this God sends them the working of error so that they would believe the live, so that all would be judged who did not believe in the truth but when it came to iniquity – they were perfectly fine with that!” (II Thessalonians 2:9-12).

In all times, though, God will use the times of rejection to continue the witness to the truth of his gospel, in the face of the worst opposition possible, both legal and illegal under the law of man. In those times witness will become the greater priority than survival – but in the times of crisis the people of God will not be left alone, to their own strength and wisdom. In those times God will give his people the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to them.

Jesus gave this promise and direction to his people as to how they were to approach the times of witness before the world during the times of persecution: “And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit.”

This promise can be seen as it worked itself out in the times in the book of Acts when authorities tried to clamp down on the apostles of God and the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Peter and John, Stephen and Paul, the times that they were brought before the civil courts and officials and religious courts and judges became platforms for their witness to Jesus, and the people who had them on trial found themselves in the awkward position of being on trial themselves. They were enabled by the Holy Spirit to witness to the gospel with forthrightness, yet without hate and disrespect, and to show love and the utmost courtesy and graciousness as they themselves displayed the countenances of angels.

This promise of Jesus continued throughout the ages, from the days after the apostles, during the many persecutions and martyrdoms in the Roman empire and elsewhere, as the gospel went forth from Jerusalem. Persecutions and martyrdoms continue, as they had behind the Iron Curtain, in Islamic countries, in India under the ideology of Hindutva, and in Nepal and Bhutan under militant Buddhism, but unshaken witnesses still continue for Jesus when they are brought before the bar of human justice. And the scripture does indicate that the persecution will become worldwide during the last years before the return of Jesus. Make no mistake about it – holding a view that the rapture will happen before the tribulation will never be any kind of insurance for any believer in Christ against having to stand for Christ in the face of earthly persecution and possible martyrdom. It has been said that many who held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture fell away in China after the Communist revolution because they believed that they would never have to suffer for Christ. Corrie ten Boom herself is reported to have said that she held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture before her imprisonment and the martyrdom of her sister and father under Nazi rule, but she came out warning against taking that view as any kind of personal comfort or insurance against suffering and dying for Christ, and indeed, she became a convinced believer in the rapture taking place at the end of the tribulation. Now certainly the issue of when the rapture takes place must always come down to what the scriptures say in themselves about the issue. So the warning here is against using this view as any kind of expectation that the future will not hold possible suffering and death if I follow Jesus with all my heart, and that a particular view of the rapture is not to be held because a person does not want to stand for Jesus and be faithful until death.

It’s noteworthy, then, that in the next several verses Jesus hits at three specific things about which I believe that many believers today have very little clarity.These things are what believers need to have clarity so that they can stand for Christ in the midst of this world, both in the present and as the coming contractions continue and deepen until the Lord returns.

The first thing that Jesus hits at is the need for a proper perspective on family loyalty in the time of persecution. He specifically predicts that betrayal to the pagan, God rejecting and Antichrist exalting state will come from family members and will result in the execution of innocent believing family members. Make no mistake about what he said: “ And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed.” While there has been a real concern for the salvation of and harmony among marriages and families

for the past generation, I’ve stated that there has been a real tendency among many professing believers and Christian leader to the idolatry of family and often to the idolatry of their own family. And betrayal will come from family members whom they may have pampered and idolized and for whom they may have made a number of little compromises of love and obedience to Christ.

So let’s consider what Jesus  says in Matthew 10: 37:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (See also a parallel passage in Luke 14:25-27). So when I witness the little compromises that Christian parents and leaders make for their children – how they tell a lie here to make that child look better than he or she is, or how they poison the well for a supposed rival to their children, or they ignore the blatant and growing selfishness and character flaws of their children – it makes me wonder how will they stand in the end if they have become habituated to putting their family above Christ and scripture by little and hidden compromises.

The second thing that Jesus says deals with our reception by the world as a whole, and it deals with the worldwide hatred that there will be toward believers before Jesus returns. Jesus gives the exact motive of the hatred of the world toward believers here, and make no mistake about why it will come upon believers: “And you will be hated by everyone because of my name.”  And this also touches upon another tendency in our day and age: the  idolatry of reputation among many professing believers. We tend far, far too much to think that there’s something wrong with us and what we may say if we displease the world without Christ. While this is sometimes the case with believers who are obnoxious or unnecessarily offensive with the way that they may express or live out their faith, I think that there are far fewer of these kinds of believers than there were in years past. I think that we have reacted far too much to the other extreme, to an oversensitivity to the slightest negative reaction to our faith from the world without Christ. Jesus has already made his expectation clear: “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before other people – I will acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. And whoever denies me before other people – I will deny that person before my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 10:32-33).  So this makes me wonder – how will anyone stand before the world that hates those who trust in Christ if they put avoidance of any negative reaction by the world without Christ above the open confession of Christ in their daily lives.

The third thing which Jesus clarifies is the issue of perseverance in staying loyal to the Lord Jesus. He said, “But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” Again, make no mistake about what Jesus expected from those who were expecting the salvation that he came to bring. He expected perseverance to the end. This does not mean that he did not anticipate that there would be failures, cowardice and outright betrayals, such as Peter, but that there would be perseverance to the end despite these failings of human nature. And with this statement Jesus touches upon something else that has been an issue in this day: idolatry of going through the motions of a set prayer to receive salvation. I have written elsewhere that there is definitely the need to receive salvation by telling God about it in prayer. There can be no mistake about it from scripture, that the first person to tell about one’s repenting of one’s sins and putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is God himself! And that will take the form of some kind of prayer, whether someone gives out the words to someone who is ignorant and stumbling or that person has come to know enough to let the words flow from his or her heart to God! But, the idea of ‘Once saved, always saved’ has become for too many the idea that you are eternally safe if you simply repeat the prayer, regardless of how you live your life afterwards or even whether you continue to have a testimony to continued faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I believe that, on the one hand, many believers are not taking the time to deal with family members and friends who have simply repeated the prayer but living outside the transforming grace of God and faith in Christ as if that person was as assured of salvation as a believer who was abiding in Christ and bearing fruit for Christ all one’s life. And, on the other hand, the idea that it’s just repeating the prayer that receives salvation has become so repugnant to so many who have seen so many have false hopes for themselves and for others who may have repeated a prayer but afterwards show little to no understanding of the scriptural gospel and no desire to follow Christ and live in his transforming power.

But I think that this simple statement of Jesus turns the emphasis around for us, that the final profession of Christ, especially in the face of a hateful world that may reward that profession with capital punishment, matters as much as the first profession of faith in Christ. The same Jesus who said, “He who comes to me I will not by any means cast out” (John 6:37) also said, “ . . . whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” He obviously meant them both and never intended either statement be pitted against each other. So here’s what I think it comes down to. Of course Jesus will receive every one who comes to him in repentance and faith. And he expects those who comes to him in repentance and faith to persevere to the end in that profession of repentance and faith. That one statement from Jesus about perseverance to the end matters more from than a stubborn grasping of ‘once saved, always saved’ applied to a repeated prayer rather than a lifelong perseverance in the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ. Just as much, we need to understand that perseverance to the end also means that Jesus expects falls along the way; after all, one of those he was speaking to was Peter. But I think that as we draw closer to the end that may be more of those who made shallow professions and cherished false hopes fall away from Jesus before a hateful world and those who have found the Savior continue with him to the end.

Whatever view of the tribulation a believer has, still a settled commitment to Christ and a consistent witness for Christ are binding upon all believers in all ages. The need will always be for a resilient life in Christ before the watching and often hostile world around us. If we are now in a time of relative ease, the time is now to continue with Christ, to be able to withstand the pressure of growing unpopularity and hatefulness from the world when it comes. And in whatever time or place we live in, there will be people and cultures which will be hostile and even murderous toward Christians. So the key is not to build and hide in our Christian enclaves and ghettoes and hope that the storms at the end pass us by, but to seek steadfastness in Christ now. Seek to be a solid witness now and not to remain lukewarm and silent. If Jesus is worth dying for before this world, he is worth living for now before this world!

So then, the warning of the prophecy of the Word of God, from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself, declares that there will be dark and difficult times up until the time that he returns. He is coming back! And that calls us to have our hope and joy in him now, and to become prepared now.

The first issue of preparation for the return of Jesus Christ is to have the issue of one’s own salvation in Jesus Christ settled completely. Be sure in your own heart that you have truly repented and believed in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and that you have been born again of his Spirit. Seal your commitment to him in public baptism, and follow him in a life of faith, love and obedience.

Then, be prepared by keeping the truth of the Word of God alive in your own heart. That’s the surest defense against the false Messiahs that are here now and the ones who are to come. Depth and stability in the truth of Jesus Christ and an unswerving devotion to the Lord Jesus now means that you will not be taken for a fool by the c0unterfeits that are here now and later to come.

Finally, be prepared to stand for Christ as things get worse and worse for believers by standing as a witness for Christ now. Show no shame of him now and he will show no shame for you when he returns. Let it be known who you will serve, now and forever.

The Promise of His Coming

Many years ago, in London, England, a man in despair went to drown himself in the River Thames. On the way to the river, though, he happened to see a copy of the painting, “Hope.” This was a painting of a blindfolded woman who was sitting on top of the world and playing on the one string left on her harp. The man turned and went back home, as he exclaimed, “Well, I have one string – I have a little boy at home.”

In a time of great difficulty and discouragement for many, that was the kind of hope that God held out for his people. The year was 732 BC. It was during the difficult years of the reign of the ungodly king Ahaz, in his capital city of Jerusalem, in the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz had led a life of wickedness and idolatry, and even sacrificed his son to a pagan god (either Baal-Rimmon or Molech).  But now the worst consequences of his wickedness had begun to arrive: the northern kingdom of Israel and the pagan kingdom of Syria had allied together against Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah, and they planned to set up a puppet king in Jerusalem. This would have meant an end to the independence of their nation and its becoming the slave state of the northern alliance. But God had his man on the spot to give them the message of hope and encouragement when the very survival of their nation seemed to be at stake. God gave the prophet Isaiah a vision of the King that was to come, and this would be someone infinitely better than the ungodly and incompetent Ahaz. This vision was an expansion on the earlier prophecy which God had given through Isaiah of the greater King from the line of David who was to come, and who would be marked as the center of the promises of God and the hopes of the people of God by being born of a virgin. Though the people of God would experience more oppression in the centuries to come through the world powers that would appear temporarily on the scene, through the prophet God pointed ahead to a time hundreds of years later to show them the Light of Salvation, the Son to be born of a virgin, who would ironically be the direct descendant of the incompetent Ahaz himself, and would bring his people freedom from the ultimate oppression itself.

This prophecy that God gave through Isaiah remains as the encouragement of the people of God today, as a foundation stone for the faith and hope of the people of God of all ages, but even more so today, since we now live on the other side of the first installment of the fulfillment of the prophecy. We now live since the time that the promised King first came, Jesus Christ, who lived and ministered among us, who died and rose again, and who now reigns from heaven. But we also can draw encouragement that there is an installment of the prophecy which is yet to be fulfilled, and when it is completely fulfilled, the promised King, born of a virgin, will return in glory and will rule openly over all the earth. Though we often hear these words during the Christmas season, in the incomparable setting of Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah, we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for their meaning as we together consider what they meant at the time when these words first came through the prophet Isaiah.

So here is what Isaiah said, to the people of his time and to the people of God of all ages:

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!
You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.
Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!
And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

(Isaiah 9:1-7).

When God’s people living in distressing times, God’s promise of the Light of salvation remains. The Light of salvation isn’t some mystical mist, feelings of exaltation or anything like that, but a Person, and the Light of salvation is Salvation in person. The deliverance of God, the Light of salvation, is in the person of his Son, the promised King, and he comes to those who are in hopeless situations, where there is suffering, to deliver those who trust in him.

The Light of God’s salvation came first to the land and the people where it seemed like the darkness had its headquarters. The joy of deliverance would come by the prophecy from the center of the land of the northern alliance, from the people who would seem to be under the most evil and incompetent rulers of that day. It would come to the land of Galilee, and that land was then under the sway of the pagans.

In verses 1-2, Isaiah directs his prophecy to the land of Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles.

“There will no longer be any darkness to those who were in despair;
Previously he humiliated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
But afterwards he will make glorious the land by the way of the sea,
The land by the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles!
The nation walking in darkness has seen a great light,
To the dwellers in the land of deepest darkness a great light has shone forth!”

 

In ancient Israel, the land which was called Galilee then and now was always the first to suffer under the invasion of foreign powers. In a very short time after this prophecy was given, it would also be the first to suffer under the invasion of the Assyrian war machine, the terrifyingly brutal empire of that day. The prior context is a part of the rebuke of God through Isaiah to Ahaz, and it shows how God takes ungodly and incompetent rulers to task. And in the prior context God tells the godly and faithful in Israel to remain faithful and not to be terrified or intimidated by every scary rumor that they would hear. He also advises them to trust in God and his Word, and not to turn aside to the psychics and ghost whisperers of that day, since that path only leads to further darkness, dissatisfaction and despair that are the marks of oppression of a spiritual nature, as it does today as well. But then the prophecy through Isaiah turns to that land he called Galilee of the Gentiles, and that had been Israelite territory for about five hundred years, ever since God had given it to the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali during the time of Joshua, when the Israelites conquered the land after they had left Egypt during the time of Moses.

Isaiah had called the Galilee of the Gentiles a land of no joy, and that was certainly an understatement for the suffering of that time and the suffering to come.  Because it was on the northern borders, the Galilee was often the first piece of territory picked off by invaders and conquerors from the northern borders of Israel. These invaders were in earlier years from the Aramaean states that are a part of modern Syria, and later in the time of Isaiah, from the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire centered around the cities of Calah, Asshur and Nineveh, in what is now northern Iraq. After the amazing ministry of Jonah in Nineveh some years earlier, the Assyrians seem to have been restrained in their drive for conquest of the whole Middle East, but they were soon to start back on that same path. And, as far as the land of Israel was concerned, the area of Galilee that Isaiah was speaking to would be the first to suffer. But, in the times to come, the first to suffer would be the first to experience something wonderful in the years to come. Centuries later, the fulfillment would come about, and it would not be a political liberation but something greater and deeper. The fulfillment would begin in the ministry of Jesus Christ in the land of Galilee, during the time of about 27-30 A.D., when he brought relief from spiritual and physical oppression in his ministry of preaching, teaching and healing. The Light of salvation in person in those years came to an area despised for its religious and social impurity, and brought, and the apostle Matthew in fact pointed to the ministry of Jesus as the fulfillment of this prophecy (Matthew 4:12-17). And it seems that this prophecy did point forward to Jesus’s declaration in the gospel of John, “I am the Light of the world! Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life!”

This shows the continuing modus operandi of God himself, that he brings the Light of salvation to the hopeless situations, and to the people who other people despise, bypass and exploit. He directs his greatest blessings to the most difficult situations and the most impossible people, and the freedom through his Son seems to come where the darkness may seem to be descending forever. The God of the Bible greatly desires to bring great joy and victory into places and lives marked by oppression and suffering. But he understands the real needs of the human heart and the human life more than any, and he knows that the real need of mankind is for more than political freedom from oppression and satisfaction of their physical needs, but rather, freedom from the power of sin over the human heart.

In so many circumstances we may forget this, and look to the satisfaction of the physical needs rather than the real needs of the human heart, but God provides for the need in ways in which we often would not do ourselves. For example, there was once a woman in Anchorage, Alaska many years ago who had been living in adultery with a married man, but who then became pregnant and was abandoned by him. After having been left alone, she threw herself on her bed and prayed, “O God, I haven’t talked with you for years, but if you are there, if you are real, please answer me. I have made a terrible mess of my life and I need your help. I need forgiveness. I want to live differently.”

God then directed her to go to the first church she saw, and there was a citywide conference on spiritual growth going on. She went in, paid the fee and came alone every night. The leader of the conference noticed her and her isolation in the midst of so many others, but he later found her coming to speak privately to him after the fourth night. He then shared with her the gospel of Jesus Christ, and she came to believe in the Savior that Isaiah had pointed to, and receive all the benefits of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Her problem, as she knew, wasn’t simply her circumstances, but the problem was with her heart and the way that she had been living, and she received what she needed to walk out of the darkness of her past into the light of the salvation which Jesus brought.

Ultimately, then, the Light of salvation which God promises means victory over our oppressions, since the conquering King is mightier than all the might of the oppressors. Before the power of the King who is to come all the equipment of the oppressor simply seems to melt away.

In verses 3-4, Isaiah went on to declare that the land of no joy, Galilee of the Gentiles, would become a land which would experience great joy as the mercy of God arrived there. He said,

“You have enlarged the nation, you have made their joy great,
Before your presence they rejoice, with the joy of a great harvest,
Or as men exult when they divide their spoils,
Because the heavy yoke,
The iron bar on their shoulders,
The ruling rod of the oppressor
You have shattered like on the day of Midian,
Because every soldier’s boot, every iron shin guard,
Every garment rolled in blood,
Is only destined for burning, simply fuel for the fire.”

The comparisons for this joy were as a time of great harvest or in dividing the spoils after a great military victory – perhaps the modern analogies would be a great stock market boom, a great victory like the Gulf War or World War II, or even a great victory for one’s favorite sports team. There would  be a miraculous victory over the oppressors, like that of Gideon over the vast army of Midian, which had taken place in about the same area about four hundred years earlier. During the lifetime of Isaiah there would have been a comparable miraculous victory over the Assyrians, in which no human would even have lifted a hand – and which, incidentally, is also attested by the secular Greek historian Herodotus. In the time of Jesus, the people would have also been looking for a political and military deliverance from the Romans, since the Roman oppression tended to be more visible in Galilee than in Jerusalem. But the promise of God’s miraculous deliverance would not be military and political, but rather the beginning of a peace that would never end, that would receive its final culmination at the return of Jesus Christ.

Though the power of oppression and evil may seem great, the power of God’s deliverance will always be greater still. Often, throughout the ages, the people of God, the people of the Bible, have been the oppressed and conquered rather than the conquerors and the oppressors. But all the might of a human war machine is nothing before the almighty Savior. Evil empires may arise, but they will all unravel and fall before the God who rules and governs the nations. This has been the comfort of the people of God in all ages, and it will certainly be so for the last generation that will face the ultimate evil empire and the ultimate evil emperor himself, the Antichrist. But ultimately, the joy of triumph will not be that of the false messiahs that precede the ultimate false messiah, and the ultimate false messiah, but all the vast, world dominating machinery of evil will simply melt away before the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Therefore, our hope in our own dark circumstances is the light of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the hope that gives us strength to endure even if the darkness seems to be gathering and asserting itself. By his mere presence, the coming of the Light of salvation will dispel the darkness, so believers in Jesus Christ need not despair of any situation as hopeless, even if the whole world around them seems to be covered with darkness. There is especially no need for hopelessness, despair, self pity and anger even if we seem to think that the circumstances of our lives are hopeless, because they are not!

The deliverance, then, that the Light of salvation in person wants to bring into our lives, then is first of all within our hearts, to bring us his joy even in the midst of our difficult circumstances in this life. Too often this is something that we may think is the least when often it is the most important thing that we need. There was once that a social worker verbally flogged David Wilkerson for giving people false hopes, but then a young woman named Rosa gave him inestimable encouragement. She told how she laughed when he had said that Jesus could live in her heart, and how she was drawn to the Word of God when she was told he could give her power over sin. She said that night when she had asked Jesus to change her heart, that the horrible block on which she lived changed. There were still piles of stinking garbage around and roaches in the apartment, and she still had many problems, but, “Jesus has changed the biggest problem of all. he has shown me how to live with myself.”

So then, God’s Light of salvation in Jesus Christ remains when his people face distressing times, but even more, God’s promise of salvation points forward to the King who was to come. The Son that he promised would be the source of salvation for the despised and downtrodden people of God, and what a Son would be that King who was to come! His anointed King, the Messiah, would be the fulfillment of all the promises of God, and the glory of the ruling Messiah would be the source of salvation for his people.

The King who was to come as the fulfillment of salvation would be certainly more than an mere human being and more than any earthly ruler before or since. The prophecy says that he would be born a human male, but the amazing titles which he is given sows that he would be more than an ordinary man. The prophecy speaks about someone who is born and yet is eternal, man and yet more than man.

The prophet Isaiah then ex[ands upon an earlier promise that he had made to Ahaz in verse 6:

“Because to us a child is born, a Son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders!
And his name will be called Wonderful, Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace!”

It was certainly in the same time period, and may have even been on the same occasion he spoke to Ahaz face to face in 7:14, about the ruling Son from the house of David who was to be born of  a virgin. In this passage Isaiah explains more about what the prophetic name “Emmanuel” would mean, “God with us.” He would be “Wonderful,” which was the name of the angel of the Lord who had appeared to Manoah, the father of Samson, and who himself turned out to be God and accepted sacrifice as God himself. He would be “Counselor,” the great Teacher, and Jesus himself accepted this title fully of himself during his earthly ministry. Moreover, he would be “Mighty God,” the God of Israel himself in person, and he would be called, “The Everlasting Father,” as eternal as God himself and the “Prince of Peace,” the ultimate peacemaker as God himself. The ruling Son from the house of David, the King who was to come, would certainly be born human, but he would also be someone who would also have the attributes of God himself, and this is something that would be possible only if he were both God and man.

This also shows something remarkable about the way that the God of the Bible works things out as he intervenes in our lives and in the history of our world. His promises and his course of action may not really be comprehensible to us until it happens. This is the way that the promises of God and the prophecies of the Messiah happened in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. But as he did with Jesus, he most certainly will do the unprecedented and unexpected for his people, as he did when he became man in the person of his Son. We often cannot know how he will act to fulfill his promises beforehand, but we can rely on him to fulfill his promises; we may find him doing things that we do not and cannot anticipate, but we will certainly find him acting powerfully, compassionately and lovingly for his glory in the person of his Son for his people. And in Jesus, God has come himself and has not remained distant. It is like a legend of a Shah of Iran some centuries ago. He disguised himself as a poor man, and came and sat with the man who tended the fire for the furnace to heat the water for the public baths. He proceeded to visit with him day after day, until one day when the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The poor man looked into the Shah’s face with love and wonder and said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happens to me. On others you may bestow rich gifts, but to me you have given yourself!”

God’s promise of salvation through his King, then, shows his utter trustworthiness. Through Jesus Christ he has fulfilled his promises to the royal dynasty of David, the royal house of Israel, and to all the people of God in all ages. The dynasty that reached its fullest dominion in Jesus Christ shows the utter faithfulness of God to his promises to all ages.

Isaiah went on to declare that all this would be accomplished not by anything that they would do but by the zealous determination of  God to fulfill his own promises to the house of David:

“And of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will be on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
And establish and increase it
With judgment and righteousness, from then until forever!
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this!”

The fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ stand as a witness forever to the utter trustworthiness of the God of the Bible and his utter dedication to the fulfillment of his own Word. God had already given promises to David years earlier, but through Isaiah, those promises were expanded even more to that someone else who would be greater than Solomon, the immediate heir of David. The King who would reign forever on the throne of David would be the final recipient of the promises of God through Isaiah to the people of God, and that Forever King would have no adversary ever that could resist his power and authority. The final application of this prophecy, then, is to the glory of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus, who has all power in heaven and on earth, and who is returning to rule this world directly, up close and in person.

Because of the precise and trustworthy fulfillment of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, there is the certainty for the child of God through faith in Jesus Christ that the God of the Bible remembers and fulfills his own promises. There is the assurance that the God of the Bible has a meticulous faithfulness to all that he says he will do. And the basis of our faith in him and our faith in his Word is not anything in ourselves and the strength of our convictions, confidence or feelings, but the faithfulness which God has shown throughout the centuries to do exactly what he has promised. The faith of the believer in Christ is not the presumption of and our expectations of what we want, but rather the trust in and reception of what God has already said and promised. So a strong faith is only the humble confidence in what God has said, and daring to take him at his Word, rather than trusting to our own ideas and our own estimation of the circumstances, no matter how promising nor how dark they may seem. And this is the kind of confidence which is found in the words of ‘Chester,’ which was one of the runners-up to be the national anthem of the United States of America:

“Let our tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slavery clank her galling chains,
We fear them not,
We trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.”

The God of the Bible will always fulfill his Word, but in his own way and in his own time. To his glory he will often go beyond our own ideas and expectations to do much more than we had thought, but in our difficulties he will above all give us himself. This is the reason for us to trust him, to receive his companionship through Jesus Christ, to follow his Word, and to live with the sense of adventure and wonder that comes when God’s surprises arrive and fulfill our deepest desires.

The message of the prophet of God, then, is, “Wait for the King! Everything is moving forward to the time that he arrives here, and everything will be all right when  he gets here!” So, we now live on the other side of the first coming of the King, after his birth at Bethlehem. We live on the other side of the testimony to what God has done for us through his life, ministry, death and resurrection. If we have repented of our sins and put our faith in him, his Light of salvation, the pardon for our sins and acceptance with God that means eternal life, has already shone into our lives. And yet we wait for him also, for his return in glory, when he will openly and directly exercise his authority over the earth as the King and Master of all. Because of him we know that God cares when people are in suffering and oppression. Because of him we know that God is faithful, that he fulfills his Word even if great stretches of time take place between the promise and the fulfillment. Because of him we know that God’s purpose for our world from all eternity has been that all power and authority, all the glory of Deity, and all wisdom and salvation, would center in and be embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus has come, then, and is yet to return, there is opportunity to receive the eternal life which he died and rose again to provide. He comes as the Light and joy of salvation to those who repent of their sins and put their trust in him. So the question comes to you: have you trusted in the King? Have you received the gift of eternal life which he died to provide for you, and which you could not have earned by yourself? Have you declared your allegiance, that the King is your Lord and Master, by the public declaration of your faith in him?

If you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ, and you have received eternal life, does your life show genuine loyalty to him? Are you loyal to him in your daily obedience to him in following his Word daily, since any day could the the day that you would meet him? Are you demonstrating your loyalty to the other people of his family and kingdom, your brothers and sisters in Christ, by dealing honestly with them and with self sacrificial love? Do you show the glory of the kingdom through lives of purity, holiness and love, so that others see a family resemblance to the King in your life? Finally, do you seek to enlist others to loyalty to the King by your witness to him?