Purpose Of Prophecy
April 27th, 1958 @ 10:50 AM
Birds, Eschatology, Future, Hope, Prophecy, Witness, 2 Thessalonians 1958, 1958, 2 Thessalonians
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Thessalonians 1:7
4-27-58 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled Purpose in Prophecy. In our preaching through the Word of God, we have come to one of the great, great apocalyptic passages in the New Testament. It begins at the seventh verse in the first chapter of the second Thessalonian letter, and it continues through the second chapter. Before entering into that passage, I have paused for this morning’s hour to present a sermon on prophecy as such. And the reason I have done it is this: there are so very many, and especially theologians, who look with supercilious, contemptuous superiority upon prophecy as though only fools and fanatics were interested in it or moved by it. So before the presentation of the sermons in Second Thessalonians, I just stopped and prepared this address and this message on God’s purpose in prophecy, for this is plainly a prophecy. I shall read part of it, the one that we have now come to in our preaching through the Word of God. Paul says that:
In all your persecutions and tribulations, we are praying that you might endure:
Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you
– God’s going to: a prophecy –
And to you who are troubled rest with us, when
– and this is His prophecy –
when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels,
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power;
When He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day.
[2 Thessalonians 1:4, 6-10]
Then he continues, and, especially for a long passage in the second chapter, he reveals the time of the end and the consummation of this age and the coming of our Lord. So we shall just begin there. We shall just stop there, and we shall say words concerning this thing of prophecy in the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments. And I could pray God will help me to present this plainly and clearly and that God will give us open hearts and open minds as we listen to the truth of God.
Now to begin. There has always been an undying desire in the heart of mankind to look into the future, to know the future. It is inescapable. It is born with us. Here Paul speaks of these Thessalonian Christians. They are persecuted; they are suffering; they are enduring tribulation [2 Thessalonians 1:4]. At the same time in Thessalonica were pagan, heathen, cruel tyrants who were flourishing in great splendor and affluence and power.
Is that to continue forever – the righteous suffer and the wicked to reign? Is that a projection from now until infinity? Is it true? Any thinking man wonders. He cannot help it if he thinks. Any thinking man wonders if there is purpose and plan and program and consummation in history and in time. Is all that we see, all that we endure, is it fortuitous circumstance? Is it happen-so, and does the world go on and on without any guiding intelligence? Is there no consummating purpose? Does life and history have any meaning? Does it reach out toward some great and final end? Does it? I say any thinking man cannot help but fall into those thoughts and meditations.
There are many prosaic, utilitarian purposes why men scan the future. A nation will do it with their finest genius in order to prepare against an inevitable day. Just military preparedness, if nothing else, would dictate to a nation that they try to foresee the future. Economic projections do the same thing: plant expansions, the getting ready for the exigencies of a tomorrow.
But all of that is minutiae, insignificance, compared to the great interest in the human heart, for mankind has always believed – ridicule cannot destroy it, and scorn cannot slay it – mankind has always believed in a life beyond the grave. And the same mankind that believes in immortality has an insatiable desire to look into the mysteries of that life. What is there to come? We stand on the shores of the ultimate sea and look into the vast vistas of the cloud in an uncertain distance beyond trying to see. Is there a light on another shore? Is there a haven of rest? Is there an ultimate destiny and final home? And especially is that true in the lifetime of people as we grow in experience, and in age, and, finally, in years. Standing on the shores of that ultimate sea, we look at friends and friends and friends who leave us and depart. And finally, it will come to the circle of home and family. And finally, the beckon and the summons will come to us.
As I stand by the cross on the lone mountain`s crest,
Looking over the ultimate sea,
In the gloom of the mountain a ship lies at rest,
And one sails away from the lea:
One spreads its white wings on the far-reaching track,
With pennant and sheet flowing free;
One hides in the shadow with sails laid back, –
That’s the ship that is waiting for me!
Lo! in the distance the clouds break away,
The Gate`s glowing portals I see;
And I hear from the outgoing ship in the bay
The song of the sailors in glee.
And I think of the footprints that bore
The comfort o`er dark Galilee,
And I wait for the summons to go to the shore,
To the ship that is waiting for me.
["The Two Ships," by Francis Bret Harte, date unknown]
All of us face that inevitable hour, and we cannot but wonder at the journey we are to make. It cannot die. It won’t die – the desire of the man as he gazes into the dark of the future.
Now, there are many methods that men have devised to divine the future. As far back as you can study, back to the dawn of the story of the human race, you will find this thing of divination – seeking to know the future. Those ancient Egyptians, and Chaldeans, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans – all of them back there – created a vast, vast literature divining the future. For example, there’s a great literature on orniscopy. Diviners said they could foretell the future by observing the flight of birds. They went to the right or they flew to the left or up or down, and all of it had a meaning. And the diviners proposed to foretell the future by the flight of the birds.
Another so-called science they had in ancient days was [haruspicy], extispicy: the foretelling of the future by the examination of the viscera of sacrificial animals. And a great literature was created in that foretelling, that divination by examining the insides of the sacrificial victim.
Another way of telling the future was through oracles, such as the Pythian oracle at Delphi. A great, great temple was erected over it, and the king or the merchant man went to the oracle and asked the priest a question. He handed it down to the priestess – at Delphi, they called her a pythonist – who sat on a tripod in the midst of a vast cave and made her oracular response, the oracles foretelling the future.
Another ancient, ancient so-called science and divination was that of astrology, horoscopy, horoscopes. It’s with us today. Most of the newspapers, I suppose, of the world carry daily articles on astrology: your horoscope, foretelling the future for you by the planets and the situation of the stars at the time of your birth and at any given hour. Then, of course, there are those who proclaim the future by the spirit of divination. You’d call it spiritism. They are mediums. They are in contact with the dead – necromancy, foretelling the future by communication with the deceased. Then, of course, there are your philosophical speculations – the dreamers like Plato in his Republic [380 BCE] or Sir Thomas More in his Utopia , or Harrington [James Harrington] in his Oceana , or Francis Bacon in his The New Atlantis .
It is endless. It is endless. All of it, without exception, all of it coming to futility and disappointment and despair. There is no such thing as a mere man divining the future whereby consultation with priestess in oracle, or orniscopy, or necromancy, or mediums, or astrology, or horoscopes. They all lead to disappointment and disillusionment and despair. I could not describe it better than Rudyard Kipling [1865-1936] did in one of his famous poems ["En-Dor," 1919] describing the visit of King Saul to Endor – the witch who conjured up Samuel from the dead that Saul might ask of the battle of the morrow [1 Samuel 28:1-25]. This is a part of Kipling’s poem:
The road to En-dor is easy to tread
For Mother or yearning Wife.
There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead
As they were even in life.
Earth has not dreamed of the blessing in store
For desolate hearts on the road to En-dor in hope.
Whispers shall comfort us out of the dark –
Hands – oh God! – that we knew!
Visions and voices – look and hark! –
Shall prove that the tale is true,
And that those who have passed to the farther shore
May be hailed – at a price – on the road to En-dor.
O the road to En-dor is the oldest road
And the emptiest road of all!
Straight it runs to the Witch’s abode,
As it did in the days of Saul,
And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store
For such as go down the road to En-dor!
[from "The Road to En-dor," by Rudyard Kipling, 1919]
It is the prerogative of God to know the future, and it is the prerogative of God alone. It is the unique characteristic of the Book I hold in my hand that it alone foretells the future. There is no such thing in any other faith, in any other religion, as this thing of prophecy. There is no prophecy in Buddhism. There is no prophecy in Islam, Mohammedanism. There is no prophecy in the religions made by man for they could not and they cannot. The future is veiled to the human mind. It is the prerogative of God. It is the distinction of God that God alone knows the future, and it is only in the revelation of God that any man could ever know what is to come to pass.
In the forty-sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah:
For I am God, and there is none else . . .
Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure:"
I have spoken it, I will bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.
[from Isaiah 46:9-11]
That is the prerogative of the Lord God alone. He says there is a purpose. There is a plan. There is a meaning in all history, and God is bringing to pass, in history, these great purposes that He sees from the beginning: that end and final consummation.
A second thing: it is the purpose and plan of God to reveal what God shall do to His servants and to His prophets. In the third chapter of the Book of Amos: "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets" [Amos 3:7]. Like in the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis: "The Lord God said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham this thing that I do?’" [Genesis 18:17]. What God proposes to do, He reveals to His friends, His servants, His prophets. That thing is said so many times in the second chapter of Daniel:
Daniel answered in the presence of the king, and said, "The secret which the king hath demanded cannot the wise men, the astrologers, the magicians, the soothsayers, shew unto the king;
But there is a God in heaven that revealeth secrets, and He maketh known to Nebuchadnezzar what shall be in the latter days."
The great exponent of the revealed message of God is the Great Prophet spoken of by Moses when in Deuteronomy Moses said: "The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto Him shall ye hearken" [Deuteronomy 18:15]. And three times is it expressly said in the New Testament that that Great Prophet spoken of by Moses, the man of God, is Jesus Christ our Lord [Luke 24:44; John 1:45, 5:46]. And He unveiled, pulled back away the veil from the future: in the great parables in the thirteenth of Matthew; in the incomparably meaningful apocalyptic discourse in twenty-four and twenty-five of Matthew; in the great apocalypse – the Greek word that we translate "the revelation," which is the unveiling of the future – given to Jesus Christ of God; the Holy Spirit in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of John when Jesus said that it is expedient for Him to go away that the Holy Spirit might come [John 16:7]. "And when He . . . is come . . . He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come" [John 16:13].
It is one of the marks of the inspiration that in the Word of God there is the unveiling of the future, the things that are to come. It is the prerogative of the inspiration, of the presence of the Spirit of God: "And He shall show you things to come" [from John 16:13]. As I hold in my hand the Word of the Lord, God’s Book, if I could describe it as one thing above anything else, I would call it a prophecy – an unfolding of the great work and purpose of God in human history.
In the beginning, in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis, the first great prophecy: "The serpent shall bruise Thy heel, but Thou shalt crush, bruise, the head of the serpent" [from Genesis 3:15]. Who? The seed of the woman – that He should be born of a virgin [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23]. The seed of the woman shall bruise, shall crush, the serpent’s head: a prophecy made in the dim beginnings of the dawn of the story of the human race, and it unfolds, and it unfolds. And God speaks to Abraham and promises him great things [Genesis 15:1-7]. And God speaks to Moses [Deuteronomy 18:15-19], and God speaks to David [2 Samuel 7:8-16], and God speaks to Jeremiah [Jeremiah 30:1-24], and God speaks to Isaiah [Isaiah 53:1-12], and God speaks to Micah [Micah 1:1-6] and to Zechariah [Zechariah 14:1-20] – all the Bible, an unfolding of the great prophetically announced purposes of God. Then, finally, God spake to us by the Great Prophet, Jesus our Lord [Hebrews 1:1-2]. Then through the Holy Spirit [2 Peter 1:20-21], God spake to us through the inspired writings of Peter [2 Peter 3:3-10] and of Paul [2 Thessalonians 2:1-12] and of John [Revelation 1:1-3].
The whole Book is a book of the great prophetic purposes of God revealed to His servants. The very language of the Bible is the language of prediction and foretelling and prophecy: "the end," "the time of the end," "the consummation of the age," "until" – how many times that word "until." "Jerusalem shall be trodden down until the times of the Gentiles be past, until Israel shall be cut off, taken out like an olive tree with a branch cut off, and we, a branch grafted in until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled" [from Luke 21:24 and Romans 11:13-27]. Until: "For as often ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death until He come" [1 Corinthians 11:26]. "And . . . He took bread, and blessed it," and He gave of the fruit of vine and they shared it, and He said, ‘I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until I drink it new with you in the kingdom of God’" [from Matthew 26:26-29], at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb [Revelation 19:7-10]. All of our faith, all of our religion, is posited on a great, revealed purpose of God made known in the Holy Scriptures that I hold in my hand.
Now, may I come to a thing that is very patent in this present hour and this present day? We live – we live in an awful and meaningful hour. And in the description of this day and this hour in which we live, there is a vast literature created by the explosion of the atomic and the hydrogen bombs and all of these elemental fissions by which we are releasing the very secret of the power of God’s universe.
In what language does the modern-day author and writer describe this age and this time in which we live? I went down to speak one time, some time ago, and saw a picture showing, advertised and thereafter much spoken of, entitled The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse : the white horse, the red horse, the black horse, the pale horse [Revelation 6:1-8]. Why do they not use the language of Plato [c. 428-348 BCE] or of Aristotle [384-322 BCE] or of Seneca [Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4 BCE-65 CE], or of the fathers or of the Orient or of modern literature? When you come face to face with the great purposes of God revealed in life, you have no other recourse but to turn to the apocalyptic language of the Book that I hold in my hand.
For example, in Fortune magazine in recent days, Dr. Ridenour [Louis N. Ridenour, 1911-1959], physicist of the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had a fearful and a one-act play. I haven’t time to describe it. It is entitled "Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse" . John McCullough, Washington bureau for the Inquirer [Philadelphia Inquirer], after witnessing the Bikini [Bikini Atoll] atomic tests wrote, "This atomic energy for military purposes is the fifth beast of the Apocalypse." Dr. Frederick L. Schumann [Frederick Lewis Schumann, 1904-1981], the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government at Williams College, wrote the greatest book of this generation on Soviet Russia entitled Soviet Politics at Home and Abroad . I quote from him:
Atomic energy promises a new epoch of abundance for all, but its immediate impact confirms the fears of Tertullian
– who lived eighteen hundred years ago –
Tertullian who predicted that "wicked angels," in bringing to man knowledge of the elements, would bring woe along with the wisdom. In [Old] Mexico the site of the test-explosion, the first atomic bomb was called "The Journey to Death." Nuclear fission suggests less the conversion of the earth into a paradise than the opening of the Sixth Seal of the Last Judgment when "there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair; and the moon became as blood." [Revelation 6:12].
That’s not some fanatical trying to weave into the hearts of people fool ideas about prophecy. Brother, that’s your great historian talking about the implications of this present time. Listen to him again:
Bolshevism is not the Beast of Revelation, as many outraged Christians and capitalists have long assumed. But the atomic bomb already recalls the fire of wrath poured out by the Fourth Angel: "And power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God." [Revelation 16:9]
All of that is Bible language! You can’t express it any other way. When you come to the final, ultimate, consummating days of the age, it is God alone who can say it. Denis de Rougemont [1906-1985], brilliant French writer, in one of his recent books entitled it The Last Trump  – that’s Bible. "The bitterness of dying also springs from the thought of missing the next installment of history," he says in that book:
That is, perhaps, why the first Christians, believing in the imminent judgment, died gladly under the reign of the tyrants. Saint Paul wrote to the faithful in Corinth, "Behold"
– now look at this in a modern book; I don’t even know whether the man’s a Christian or not –
"Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.’" [1 Corinthians 15:51, 52]
Do you know what the Greek text says where the French translation reads "in an instant?" It says in en atomō, "in an atom." And I looked it up in my Greek. I don’t know why in the world I had never seen it. First Corinthians 15:52 is that: "in an instant." It is translated: "in an atom." The Greek says en atomō, the dative form, "in an atom, in an instant," translated, "in an atom." It overwhelms you.
Now, I must close. The whole purpose of the message is this. Why does God prophesy the future? Why does God reveal the future? Why? He does it for hope, for light, for encouragement, for victory, for optimism, for assurance to His people [1 Thessalonians 4:18]. I never heard of a student of God’s Book, I never heard a man who gave himself to the study of prophecy, I never heard of a man who believed the Word and the revelation of God who ever fell into despair and into disillusionment and into disappointment. I never heard of it. On the other hand, on the other hand, all of the prophets of this world using divinations of their own choice, either philosophical speculation, or wishful thinking, or dreaming dreams, or however they do – they all fall into bitterness, into rancor, into disillusionment and despair.
Could I take an example of the best? Alfred Lord Tennyson [1809-1892], poet without peer, when he was about thirty years of age, published "Locksley Hall" . And there’s not a schoolboy in this earth that has not quoted a part of that poem:
Men, my brothers, men, the workers, ever reaping something new:
That which they have done but earnest of the things they yet shall do:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonders that would be;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
Man, haven’t we quoted that? When Tennyson was seventy-nine years old , toward the end of his life, he wrote another long poem entitled "Locksley Hall – Sixty Years After." Listen to Tennyson sixty years later:
I myself have often babbled doubtless of a foolish past;
Babble, babble; our own England may go down in battle at last.
Fires that shook me once, but now to silent ashes fall’n away.
Cold upon the dead volcano sleeps the gleam of a dying day.
Gone the cry of "Forward, Forward," lost within a growing gloom;
Lost, or only heard in silence from the silence of a tomb.
Authors — essayists, atheists, novelists, realists, rhymesters, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with living hues of Art.
Do your best to charm the worst, to lower the rising race of men;
Have we risen from out the beast, then back into the beast again?
Warless? wars will die out late then. Will it ever? late or soon?
Can it, till this outworn earth be dead as yon dead world the moon?
A critic when that poem was published, who lived at that time, said, "The eager impulse to advance is lost within a growing gloom as the wise, old poet contemplates a nation fallen on evil times." I have to quit.
After H. G. Wells [Herbert George Wells, 1866-1946] for over forty years had published literature, great historical contribution, in great optimism and persuasion of the golden days and the Golden Age, when World War II came, and especially the explosion of the atomic bomb, every dream that he had was shattered to the earth. And in his old age before he died, he wrote one of the most fearfully, awfully pessimistic, despairing pieces of literature ever penned entitled Mind at the End of Its Tether .
It’s all that way. It’s all the same fabric. When the man looks, it ends in disillusionment and despair. When the man prophesies, his hopes turn to dust and to ashes. But when God prophesies and when the Lord speaks through His prophets, and when the Lord reveals His purposes in His Book, the man may be imprisoned, and the prophet may be in his own blood, and His people – like wolves ravage a flock – His people may be decimated by the sword of the tyrant. They may be standing in a coliseum facing hungry wild beasts. They may be in sheepskins and in goatskins, wandering destitute, afflicted, tormented in the earth, but if he’s a prophet of God, he’ll die triumphantly [Hebrews 11:36-40]. And above the smoke and the war and the blood and the sword, he’ll see the triumphant victory of Jesus our Lord coming in glory and in power [Acts 7:54-60].
Brother, that’s the faith, and that’s why God wrote it large in the Book – that we might not despair, but that we might live in hope. We have a more sure word of prophecy [2 Peter 1:19]. While the prophecy of the Scripture is of no private interpretation, there’s no such thing as one of them just standing alone and by itself [2 Peter 1:20-21]. It all is a pattern of the great purpose of God, for, "the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man" [from 2 Peter 1:21]. He had nothing to do with it. Prophecy is the prerogative of God. "But holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" [2 Peter 1:21] who shows us things to come [John 16:13].
Now, we sing our song. And while we sing it, somebody you to put your heart and life in the love and grace and mercy of Christ, would you come and stand by me? In this balcony around, down these stairwells, into the aisle, from side to side, as God shall move your heart, as the Spirit shall say the word, to give your life in trust to Christ or to put your life in the fellowship of the church, one somebody you or a family you, would you come while we stand and while we sing?