The Perplexity of the Prophets
December 25th, 1983 @ 10:50 AM
PERPLEXITY OF THE PROPHETS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-25-83 10:50 a.m.
And welcome the multitudes of you who are sharing this Christmas hour with us on radio and on television. And the message this morning is the Perplexity of the Prophets. It is a message that is born out of the passage that we read together; the prophets foretelling the glory of Christ, but also His suffering, could not understand. How can He be exalted and lifted up and at the same time be filled with grief and sorrow and suffering? They could not see—and that passage we just read in 1 Peter 1:10-12 says that the angels could not understand. They desired to look into it. They could not fathom the unfathomable mystery of God in the coming of the Prince of glory into this world.
We also have an innate, and congenital, and unstated, and unconscious, and an unplanned habit, persuasion of linking the first and the second comings of Christ together. We do it whether we consciously plan to do it or not. One merges into the other, even for us. In our prayers, in our thanksgiving, in our vision and hopes and dreams, the two comings of our Lord are enmeshed and somehow inexorably identified.
Look at this poem for example:
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed.
Mary was that mother mild
Jesus her little Child.
He came down from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And His shelter was a stable
And His cradle was a stall.
With the poor and mean and lowly.
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
Now look at it: “And our eyes at last shall see Him”—immediately moving into the second coming of our Lord—
And our eyes at last shall see Him.
Through His own redeeming love.
For that Child so dear and gentle.
Is our Lord in heaven above.
And He cometh for His own.
From the place where He has gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable
With the oxen standing by
We shall see Him, but in heaven
Set at God’s right hand on high;
When like stars His children crowned
All in white shall gather round.
[from “Once In Royal David’s City,” Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, 1848]
Unconsciously, we do that. When we think of the coming of our Lord, immediately, we think of the return of our Savior to be King and Lord and Judge and Ruler of all God’s creation. Now, if we do that, if when we think of the coming of Christ into the world, unconsciously, we put the two together: His first coming, incarnate, a child born in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-23], and His coming again in glory with all the holy angels [Matthew 16:27]. If we do that, how much more did the prophets do that, who could not understand that His coming was twofold; one, to be incarnate, a man suffering and dying for us [Philippians 2:8]; and then coming again to be Lord and Ruler over all the earth? [Matthew 25:31; Revelation 19:15]. They did not see that.
That is why I call the message The Perplexity of the Prophets. They didn’t understand. They were like a stargazer, an astronomer, who with his naked eye looks at a brilliant and scintillating star, and as he looks into the heavens, it looks to him to be one brilliant, glorious star, but when he takes a telescope and looks at it with discernment, he finds that it is two stars; first this star, and then thousands of light years beyond, another star. But with his naked eye, it appears to be one brilliant star.
The prophets were like that. When they looked at the coming of Christ, it seemed to them to be one brilliant visitation from heaven, one intervention of God in human history, when actually it was twofold. Same kind of a thing as a traveler sees in the distance a great towering mountain, and to him it looks to be one mountain. But as he draws nearer to it, he sees it is two mountains. It is one this side and one far beyond on the other side, and a great valley in between.
So with the prophets, when they spoke of the coming of our Lord, it was always one great, mighty, brilliant, glorious coming down from God out of heaven of the Prince of glory. One coming; and yet in their description, it was twofold—so unlike, so filled with suffering, and at the same time so exalted and glorious. And they couldn’t understand; nor could the angels, according to the passage in Peter that we just read [1 Peter 1:10-12].
The perplexity of the prophets; and you find that throughout the pages of the Old Covenant. It begins with Genesis 3:15, called the protevangelium—the gospel before the gospel, the first gospel; a famous promise that the Lord God said when He turned to our sinning parents [Genesis 3:1-6], and speaking of the satanic evil one: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her Seed; her Seed shall crush your head, but thou shalt bruise His heel” [Genesis 3:15].
In that first promise of a coming Redeemer, it’s threefold. One, in the Old Covenant, Somebody is coming; the Seed of the woman [Genesis 3:15]. Through her, transgression came into the world [Genesis 3:1-6]. Through her, redemption shall be found for the human fallen race [Genesis 3:15]. The Old Covenant: Somebody is coming. The Gospels: Somebody is here. In the epistles and the Apocalypse: Somebody is coming again. And that message of suffering, and redemption, and ultimate triumph and glory is found throughout the Bible.
When I turn to Genesis 49, Israel—Jacob—on his deathbed, is speaking to his twelve sons. And turning to Judah he says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come” [Genesis 49:10]. That’s the first coming. Judah will be a people and a nation and a kingdom until the Messiah shall come. That’s the first coming of our Lord.
Now in the same breath, in the same sentence, he says: “And unto Him shall the gathering of the people be” [Genesis 49:10]. That’s the second coming, when all of the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are gathered together in the Holy Land, in Israel. “And they shall look on Him whom they have pierced, and mourn for Him, as a father would mourn for his only son” [Zechariah 12:10]. And a nation shall be born in a day [Isaiah 66:8]. And they shall accept their Lord Messiah. That’s the second coming. And it’s in the same breath; it’s in the same sentence.
Look again in 2 Samuel. The Lord says to David: “When thy days shall be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee”—Solomon—“which seed shall proceed out of thy lions, and I will establish his kingdom” [2 Samuel 7:12]. That is a prophecy that David shall have a Son, who will come here into this world. That’s the first coming.
All right, the second coming: “And thine house and thine kingdom shall be established forever.” “Thy throne shall be established forever” [2 Samuel 7:13]. That is the second coming—both of them in the promise that the Lord God has made to David.
I turn again to the wonderful and beautiful, incomparably beautiful prophecies of Isaiah. I wish I had time to speak of them—I’ll just take one or two of them. Listen to this in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah: “There shall come forth a Rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him—wisdom, understanding, counsel, might—the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” [Isaiah 11:1-2]. That’s the first coming. “A Rod out of the stem of Jesse” and “a Branch growing up out of his roots”—that’s the first coming [Isaiah 11:1-2].
Now the second coming: “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid . . . and the lion will eat straw like an ox . . . They will not hurt nor destroy in all Mine holy mountain: for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” [Isaiah 11:6-9]. That’s the second coming. Yet both of them are here in the same breath.
I turn again to the ninth chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Look at it again, in the same sentence, Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a Child is born”—that’s His humanity; “unto us a Son is given”—that’s His deity; the Son of God.
Now that’s His first coming. “Unto a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.” That’s His first coming. Now in the same sentence, in the same breath and in the same prophecy: “And the government shall rest upon His shoulder . . . And of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with justice forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform it” [Isaiah 9:6-7]. All of that in one sentence. His first coming as a Child born [Isaiah 9:6], and His second coming to establish a kingdom on the throne of David that shall have no end; it shall continue forever [Isaiah 9:7]. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts” will bring it to pass—both prophecies in the same sentence, in the same breath.
Look again in Zechariah, Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: …lowly, riding upon an ass, and upon the foal, the colt of an ass . . .” That’s His first coming: sweet, humble, lowly, riding upon the colt of an ass. Now His second coming in the same breath, in the next verse: “And He shall speak peace unto the nations: and His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” [Zechariah 9:10]. That’s His second coming, both of them in the same breath.
I turn the page in Zechariah to chapter 14: “His feet shall stand”—verse 4, Zechariah 14:4—“His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof.” And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day, there shall be one Lord; the whole earth shall bow in worship and adoration before the one Lord. And His name shall be One—one Lord, one faith [Zechariah 14:9]. That’s the ultimate coming of our marvelous Savior. That’s the second coming.
Look just once more in Malachi, chapter 3: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me.” That’s His first coming [Malachi 3:1]. Verse 2: “But who may abide the day of His coming?” For He shall stand as a refiner in furious judgment “when He appeareth” [Malachi 3:2]. That’s His second coming. Both of them are together in the same sentence, in the same breath, in the same prophecy.
And if we have a tendency to enmesh them today, think of the perplexity of the prophets. How could they understand? [1 Peter 1:10-12].
Now when we come to the New Testament, that same perplexity is found throughout the Gospels of our Lord. How is it that this Christ of God is to be King and Lord over all the earth, and at the same time, He is to be the lowliest of servants and is to suffer and to die? They couldn’t understand it.
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Matthew: “It came to pass, when Jesus had spoken to His disciples and was gone to preach in the cities, that John the Baptist heard in his prison the works of Christ. And he sent two of his disciples, and said unto Him, Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” [Matthew 11:1-3]. “I do not understand,” says John, “I can’t understand. Are we looking for two Christs, You and another one?”
Now in all the years of my life, all of them; every Sunday school lesson I have ever read on that passage, and every Sunday school lesson ever taught on that passage, and every message I have ever heard delivered on that passage has the one common denominator: namely, that in his incarceration, in his imprisonment, that John the Baptist began to doubt the message that God had sent him to preach. And because of his doubt, he sent to Jesus, asking whether the message he had delivered was true or not. Now that is universal through all of the years and years. I’ve never heard an exception to it.
There’s not anything more untrue than that. Jesus said, after these two disciples had been instructed and sent back to their master who was in prison, Jesus said: “What do you think about John? What do you think about John? Do you think he is soft? They that are soft are up there in a king’s palace who have known nothing of the hardships of life. You think he is soft? What do you think about John the Baptist, our Lord says. Do you think he is like a reed shaken in the wind?” [Matthew 11:7].
“Do you think that imprisonment, hardship, changed that man of God? Do you? No,” says the Lord, “out of all of the prophets who have ever lived and all of the men who have ever been born of a woman, there is none greater than John of the Baptist” [Matthew 11:11]. And then we turn right around and say, because of his incarceration and his sufferings, he is doubting the message that he delivers.
My brother, there are ten thousand times ten thousand martyrs who have laid down their lives for the faith who never doubted because they were in suffering, or incarcerated, or imprisoned, or burned at the stake, or hanged, or thrown into boiling cauldrons of oil. And to say that of John the Baptist is unthinkable and certainly not exegetically, expositionally true.
Well, what happened here? It is very plain what happened. It says here that when John the Baptist heard of the marvelous works of the Christ [Matthew 11:2]—not of a man, Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, he’s talking about Christ, God’s sent Anointed One—and he says he sends unto Him to ask Him [Matthew 11:3]. If he doubted Him, why would he ask Him? He’d ask anybody else but Him. It’s because of John’s great commitment in Christ as the Son of God that he sends to Him to ask Him the question.
Now the question is very, very explicable. It is understandable. John preached two things about Jesus, about the Coming One, about the Messiah, whom he introduced to the world. He preached two things about Him. Number one, he introduced Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Isn’t that right? He lifted up his voice and said: “Behold,” as Jesus passed by, “behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. The suffering Lamb of God, the sacrifice of the Lord for our sins [Hebrews 9:26]—that’s what John the Baptist said. At the same time, and in the same breath, and to the same people, he said: “He shall lay the ax at the root of the tree” [Matthew 3:10], and “He shall gather His wheat into the garner; and the chaff He shall burn with unquenchable fire” [Matthew 3:12].
Now that’s the way John preached. When he introduced Christ, he introduced Him as the prophets of the Old Testament would have introduced Him. He introduced Him as the Suffering Servant of God who bears away our sin [Isaiah 52:13-53:12]. And at the same time, he introduces Him as the King and the Lord and the Judge of all the earth [Isaiah 66:16].
And John, in prison thinking about the ministry of Christ, couldn’t understand. He saw in Christ the Suffering Servant, but what about the Christ who was to be the Judge and the King of all the earth? So he sends to Jesus and asks: “Lord Jesus, are there two Christs? Is there one, You, who is coming to be a sacrifice for our sins, and is there another Christ Messiah who is coming to be King and Lord of all the earth?” [Matthew 11:3]. He didn’t understand, just like the prophets didn’t understand. They were perplexed [1 Peter 1:10-12]. How is it that this Lord Christ, who is coming to suffer and to die, is to be the King of all God’s creation? So he asked the Lord, “Are there two Christs?” [Matthew 11:1-3]. Perplexed.
Now the apostles were just like that in their ministry. In the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Matthew, when the Lord said to His apostles, in verse 21, that He had to suffer and to die [Matthew 16:21], Peter took Him and rebuked Him, saying: “Lord, not such a thing will ever happen to Thee!” [Matthew 16:22]. You see, to him the Messiah was to be the King of creation and that He would suffer and die—unthinkable! And the Lord turned to Peter and said, “Simon Peter, get thee behind Me. Satan has possessed you” [Matthew 16:23]. He doesn’t understand the things of God. “Verily, I say unto you, the Son of Man shall come unto the glory of His Father with His angels” [Matthew 16:27]—both of them together, to suffer and to come into the glory of the Father.
The people couldn’t understand that. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of John, the Lord said in verse 32, “If I be lifted from the earth, I will draw all men unto Me. This signified by what death He should die” [John 12:32-33]. Then the people said: “We know out of the law, out of the Old Covenant, out of the Old Testament, that Christ abideth forever. What do You mean when You say the Son of Man is to be lifted up and die?” [John 12:34]. They couldn’t understand.
And the last thing that you have in the life of our Lord here in this earth is in Acts 1:6. He is ascending up into heaven; He is returning back to the throne of glory [Hebrews 1:3]. “And the disciples asked Him, saying: Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]. “Lord, Lord, leaving us behind, leaving us here, what of the kingdom? Is there to be no kingdom?”
My brother, there would never have been any moment, any time as propitiously pertinent as this one for the Lord to say to those disciples, “No, there is to be no kingdom. You are not going to have a King, you are not going to have a kingdom. This is the end of it. I am returning back into glory.” He didn’t say that. What our Lord said was, “You do not know the time and the season, but the kingdom is coming. You do not know the day or the hour—that lies in the prerogative and power of Almighty God—but there is a kingdom coming, there is a kingdom coming” [Matthew 25:31; Revelation 3:21].
And as they watched the Lord Jesus ascend into glory, they stood there transfixed—maybe hopeless, and helpless, alone, forlorn, looking up, just looking up into heaven [Acts 1:9-11]. And an angel came and said: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking up into heaven as though your hope, and your prayers, and your vision, and every dream of a golden tomorrow has vanished away? This same Jesus—this same Jesus, whom you have seen going up into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go away. He is coming again” [Acts 1:10-11].
The perplexity of the prophets couldn’t understand it [1 Peter 1:10-12], and the disciples were confused by the fulfillment of the Word of God [Acts 1:6-7, 9-11]. But it’s because He came one time in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-2:1], to assume our humanity, to be incarnate in our flesh, to shed our tears, to bear our sorrows, to live our lives, to die our death [Hebrews 10:5-14]. That’s the first time that He comes [Matthew 1:23-25]. He is coming again to be King and Lord over all the earth [Matthew 25:31-32; Acts 1:11]. He is coming twice. They couldn’t see it. They couldn’t understand it. But it’s been revealed to us as a mustērion, a mystery of God.
In the third chapter of the Book of Ephesians, that whole chapter is given to a discussion of this, just this [Ephesians 3:1-21]. Paul says that what was hidden in the heart of God in all of the generations and millennia past has now been revealed unto us through His holy apostles; namely, that between the first coming of Christ [Matthew 1:23-25], and the second coming of Christ [Acts 1:11], in this distance between those two stars, in this valley between those two mountains, that in that period of time, God is going to call to Himself a people [Ephesians 3:1-21]. He is going to call it the body of Christ. It’s going to be called the ekklēsia, the church of the living God, the assemblies of the Lord, the church of Christ, the people of the Lord [1 Timothy 3:15].
And in that church, in this period of time that the prophets never saw [Ephesians 3:5], this age of grace, this age of the Holy Spirit, God is going to form a new and a wonderful thing. He is going to build a church, and in it are going to be Gentiles and Jews, bond and free, male and female, old and young, black and white. From the ends of the earth, God is calling out His own, redeeming them, forming them in a new creation [Ephesians 3:2-12]. And when He comes—when He comes, they’ll be in the earth to receive Him with praise and gladness and glory from heaven; when He comes, when He comes.
And as surely as the first coming of our Lord was fulfilled in every detail [Matthew 1:20-2:1], so the second coming of our Lord will be fulfilled in every detail [Hebrews 9:28]. Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Christ, Anointed One is coming again [Acts 1:11]. And that is the constant promise of the Word of God. Hebrews 9: “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” That’s His first coming. “And unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time apart from sin unto salvation” [Hebrews 9:28].
Or look again in Hebrew 10:37: “Yet a little while, and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry.” He is coming again. Paul calls that in Titus 2:13, Paul calls that the “blessed hope,” “looking for that blessed hope, the appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Paul writes of it in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God”; the second coming of our Lord.
And as those on the other side of the New Testament looked forward toward His first coming, we on this side of the New Covenant look forward to His second coming. And may I close with the avowal—now this is your pastor’s pre-millennial conviction. Now there are others who differ, and that’s all right. But this is the deep conviction of your pastor: I’m not looking for the battle of Armageddon [Revelation 16:16], though the world is shaping up toward that final conflict. And I’m not looking for the tribulation [Jeremiah 30:7], though the Bible says it will certainly come. I’m not looking for the Antichrist [1 John 2:18], though he apparently is always ready to be revealed. And I’m not looking for the seven seals [Revelation 6:1-17, 8:1-5], or the blowing of the seven trumpets [Revelation 8:6-9:21, 11:15-19], or the pouring out of the seven vials of wrath [Revelation 16:1-21]. I’m looking for the Lord Jesus [Titus 2:13]. He said, “Watch and be ready” [Matthew 25:13]. He may come any day, any hour, any time. And we, according to the promise of His words, are looking for our wonderful Savior [John 14:3].
It is not for a sign we are watching,
For wonders above and below,
The pouring of vials of judgment,
The sounding of trumpets of woe.
It is [for King Jesus] we are longing
To make the world kingdoms His own.
It is [for the Judge] who shall summon
The nations of earth to His throne.
We wait for the Lord our beloved,
Our comforter, Master, and friend.
The substance of all that we hope for,
Beginning of faith and its end.
We watch for our Savior and Bridegroom,
Who loved us and made us His own.
For Him we are looking and longing,
For Jesus, and Jesus alone.
[Annie Johnson Flint]
What a glorious, triumphant way to live! The Lord is coming any day, any hour, any time, and He is coming for His own [Titus 2:13-14]. And I repeat, as surely, and as certainly, and as verily as the first prophecy was fulfilled [Matthew 1:21-23], when He came to Bethlehem [Micah 5:2], just so certainly will the prophecy [John 14:3], be fulfilled that He shall come down from heaven for us [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
O Lord, how could we ever live a defeated life, or a weary life, or a despondent life, or an abysmal life? We live a life of triumph, and glory, and promise, and light, and resurrection, and life, and everything that God hath in store for those who place their trust in Him [1 Corinthians 2:9]. Jesus is coming again [Acts 1:11].
And in that faith, and in that persuasion, and in that commitment in love and grace, we invite you to be a fellow pilgrim with us. A family you to put your life with us in this dear and wonderful church; a couple you to come and to be numbered with us; or a one somebody you, “God has spoken to me today and, pastor, here I am. I’m on the way.” In the balcony round, down one of these stairways, and time and to spare, waiting for you; in the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, I have decided for God and here I stand. I’m taking the Lord as my Savior, this Christmas day I’m opening my heart to Him.” Or, “I’m coming into the fellowship of the church to be baptized as God hath commanded [Matthew 28:19], and set an example in His Word” [Matthew 3:13-17]. Or, “I’m answering some call of the Holy Spirit in my heart, and I’m on the way pastor, here I am.” That first step will be the most meaningful you’ll ever make in your life. Do it, and what a glorious moment and hour and day in which to answer, in which to respond. God bless you as you come. On the first note of the first stanza, welcome, and the angels of Bethlehem attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.