Prophecy and the Present Age
John Heading, Aberystwyth
In our previous papers diagram was included showing what we called "Prophetic Trajectories". The reader should have this diagram available for reference as the present paper is read. Every verse of Scripture containing a prophetic thought should fit into one of the arrowed lines (bearing in mind that we have omitted what may be termed the "future eternity"). Promises of global blessing, such as justification by faith promised before to Abraham, Rom. 4. 3, are excluded from our inquiry. We provide here a few comments upon the various prophetic trajectories as illustrated in the diagram.
The Diagram Described. The divine thought in eternity past looked forward to the time when the Lord Jesus would descend to the created earth to suffer and to die. He was the Lamb foreordained before the foundation of the world, 1 Pet. 1. 20, and His crucifixion was in keeping with the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God", Acts 2. 23. The divine purpose also looked forward to the Church and to the peculiar blessings of the Lord's people in this present age. This peculiar purpose was known as a "mystery", hidden through Old Testament times, but made known by the Spirit through the apostolic ministry, Rom. 16. 25; Eph. 3. 5, 9. Believers know that they were chosen in Christ "before the foundation of the world", 1. 4.
In the Old Testament, there are many examples of what may be termed "local prophecy", namely the foretelling of events that took place later in Old Testament history. Thus in Jeremiah 25. 11, the Jewish nation would serve the king of Babylon for seventy years; when this period was complete, they would return to their own land, 29. 10. This took place in Ezra 1. 1, while in Isaiah 44. 28 it is asserted that Cyrus would cause the temple to be rebuilt. Additionally, the whole life of the Lord Jesus is traced through the Old Testament prophetic word, Luke 24. 44-46. Thus Isaiah 7. 14 and Micah 5. 2 speak of His birth; Psalms 22, 69 and Isaiah 53 speak of His death, while Psalm 16 speaks of His resurrection. As to the future, the Old Testament looks forward to the time after the Church is taken to be with the Lord; Daniel 2. 40-43 demonstrates in the legs and feet of the image the political system on earth at that future time, while further information is contained in Daniel 7 dealing with the fourth nameless beast. But the ultimate vision of the Old Testament prophets was the kingdom age; the major prophets contain the great restoration sections: Isaiah 40-66 show Zion restored; Jeremiah 31-33 shows bridal affections restored; Ezekiel 40-48 show the glory of the Lord restored in His house. Verses such as Daniel 7. 9-14 show the throne restored.
Many parts of the Lord's teaching were prophetic. On many occasions He spoke of His death and resurrection, then but a short distance away, Matt. 16. 21; Luke 18. 31-33. Such prophecies always seemed to be unpalatable to His disciples. Moreover, the Lord prepared His disciples for His return to heaven by promising the Holy Spirit, so John 14-16 presents His teaching that prepared the disciples for this new period. His teaching also looked forward to the testimony of the Church on earth. The temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, Matt. 24. 2, so that no rival religious attraction after the flesh should remain in Jerusalem. He also extended His teaching up to His coming again for the Church, John 14. 2-3, "I will come again, and receive you unto myself". Beyond this Church age, the Lord prophesied of the future apostasy that would overtake the earth, resulting in His return in glory, Matt. 24. 3-41. Finally, His teaching extended to the millennial reign, when the righteous would shine forth in the kingdom of His Father, Matt. 13.43.
The gift of prophecy existed during the apostolic era after the ascension of the Lord Jesus, Rom. 12. 6; 1 Cor. 12. 28; Eph. 4. 11. Some examples are entirely local in character; Agabus spoke of a famine, Acts 11. 28, and showed that Paul would be bound, 21.
11. Many events were foreseen by the apostles; Paul could see the decline in eldership, through wolves entering in to spoil the flock, Acts 20. 29-30. The growth of false teachers was inevitable, 1 Tim. 4. 1; 2 Pet. 2. 1. The progress of church history is shown pictorially in Revelation 2-3, while Paul traced out the hope of the Church, the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, 1 Thess. 4. 13-18. After this, Paul spoke of terrible times to come, under, for example, the man of sin, the son of perdition, 2 Thess. 2. 3- Since the millennial age is spelt out in such detail in the Old Testament, not
much more is added by the apostolic teaching; Revelation 20. 4-6 shows the one thousand years and those who reign with Christ. Revelation 21. 9 to 22. 5 treats this subject from the heavenly point of view, the Old Testament treating it from the earthly aspect.
The reader should convince himself that every prophetic utterance fits in to this plan. Many of the details will be explained as the series proceeds.
Prophecies Relating to the Present Age. We shall commence our broad panoramic view of prophecy by considering the manner in which the present day was a matter of New Testament prophecy. Such prophecies were essentially warnings against decline, the hopes and blessings of the Church at the end of the present age forming a separate subject. As far asthe teaching of the apostles was concerned, they manifested that they were also prophets. In particular, John was a prophet by reason of the special revelation granted to him on Patmos. In Genesis 49, Jacob concluded his life by speaking prophetically of what should befall the tribes "in the last days", v. 1. In Deuteronomy 32, Moses likewise predicted events of the future relating to the tribes; "I know that after my death ye shall utterly corrupt yourselves", 31. 29. Paul also declared what would happen in the churches that he had established: "I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you", Acts. 20. 29. In effect, he foretold the complete history of church testimony on earth, with only a few believers really taking heed. These leaders visualized by Paul have caused the divisions over the centuries; perilous times would thereby come in the last days, 2 Tim. 3. 1, as false teachers and false prophets seek to disturb the church with their essential denial of the Lord Jesus Christ, 2 Pet. 2. 1. But more systematically, we may regard the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 as demonstrating the Lord's foreknowledge of conditions then future.
These seven letters have a threefold meaning. First, they dealt with conditions in the seven local churches actually named. Second, they reflect on conditions in many local churches throughout the dispensation. Third, they provide in order a systematic panorama of church history from a divine point of view. That there is this prophetic element in them can be seen as follows: The whole book of Revelation is called prophecy, Rev. 1. 3. The word "mystery" in 1. 20 implies that there is some hidden implication. The "things which are" are distinct from the "things which shall be", 1. 19. The number seven, taken with the symbolism of chapters 2-3, shows that there is something far beyond the seven actual local churches. Symbolism would not be necessary to deal only with the seven churches as such; Paul did not use symbols when he dealt directly with the actual errors in Corinth and elsewhere. And lastly, the key fits the lock as we look back over the broad details of church history leading to Christendom. No doubt John and the early Christians did not realize this prophetical import, for had readers known that the church was being described for hundreds of years to come, the hope of the imminent return of the Lord would have been lost and dissipated. The use of symbols prevented the loss of this hope. But when the symbols are understood, then the coming of the Lord must be near.
We may give a brief survey of the implications of the seven letters relating to broad features of church testimony throughout the centuries. In Ephesus, we see the state of the church on earth after the apostolic age; the first love had been left, and the chaste virgin had been corrupted, as Eve had been seduced. This corresponds to the Judaizing tendencies, whereby Old Testament ceremony and law were reintroduced. In Smyrna, we see the persecution of the church at the hands of the emperors of imperial heathen Rome. In Pergamos (meaning twice married), we find the period of the marriage of church and state, originating under Constantine. In Thyatira, we have papal iniquity and persecution at its height. In Sardis, there is the rise of protestantism, though not with a full return to the things of God. In Philadelphia, we have the later evangelical movements, believers holding to church and prophetical doctrine. In Laodicea, church testimony is seen as Christendom about to be rejected by the Lord, and this brings us up to the present time. Yet at the same time, every believer is responsible to keep all the words of every message delivered to the seven churches. We are blessed if we keep the words, and the overall moral import can be seen in the verse, "Come out of her, her sins", Rev. 18. 4. When a local congregation is no longer a local church in doctrine and practice, but merely a cog in the great mushroom of Christendom, then the responsibility of believers is clear; this great fact has had to be faced by those faithful to the Lord and my people, that ye be not partaker of His Word throughout the ages.