Why Study Prophecy?
January 27th, 1985 @ 10:50 AM
WHY STUDY PROPHECY?
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-27-85 10:50 a.m.
This is the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the sermon entitled Why Study Prophecy? Why listen to the prophet? Next Sunday, it will be Who Is This Prophet Ezekiel? And so through the immediate weeks that lie ahead, we shall be looking at and listening to this prophet of the exile, the father of the Jewish faith that lived when the temple with its ritual, its priests, and its sacrifices were destroyed, the prophet Ezekiel. And the title of the message, Why Listen to the Prophet? The Purpose and Preaching of Prophecy: Why Study Prophecy? The background text for the message is found in Ezekiel, chapter 12, the last two verses and Ezekiel, chapter 20, the last verse. First, Ezekiel chapter 12, the last two verses:
The word of the Lord came unto me, saying [Ezekiel 12:26]—
now the verse—
Son of man, behold, they of the house of Israel say, The vision that he seeth is for many days to come, and he prophesieth of the times that are afar off.
Therefore say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; There shall none of My words be prolonged any more, but the word which I have spoken shall be done, saith the Lord God.
And the other text: the last verse of chapter 20; Ezekiel chapter 20, the last verse, “Then said I, Ah Lord God! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?” [Ezekiel 20:49].
Would you not think—would you not suppose that when Ezekiel came with his flaming, burning message from heaven that the people would eagerly have listened to him? And the call to repentance, and to faith, and to conversion, and to life, they would gladly have done and obeyed? Ezekiel came with a message of repentance and appeal. As he said in Ezekiel 33:11: “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his evil way and live”: then his appeal: “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will you die?” Contrary to what we could have thought, that his message would have been received with eager and hungry-hearted anticipation, just the opposite was true. When the prophet came with his word from heaven, they said in a surly and arrogant and unrepentant reply—they said, and you read their words, “He speaks parables [Ezekiel 20:49]. He speaks metaphors. He speaks enigmas. He speaks apocalyptic discourses and visions that we cannot understand. And they have no meaning to us.” And the other text that you read, quoting the response of the people: “What he says and the prophecies that he brings are of far-off times [Ezekiel 12:27]. They have no pertinency or relevancy to us. They concern things far, far away and removed from us, and our day, and our time, and our lives.”
Why should they have responded to the message of Ezekiel in such an arrogant and unrepentant way? Because they did not want to understand, and they did not want to listen, and they did not want to obey, and they did not want to repent. It is exactly as the Lord said to the unrepentant and disobedient people to whom He came into the world. The Lord said in Matthew 13:
Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
The people replied to Ezekiel, “We don’t want to hear, and we don’t want to see, and we don’t want to understand, and we don’t want to be converted, and we don’t want to change, and we don’t want to repent.” To them, a conversion was a thing to be abhorred, and a repentant spirit was something to be put off, relegated, some other time, some other day, or never. “Why listen to the prophet? We have our own way, and our own choice, and our own life, and our own interest. And we have given ourselves to other things than the things of God. Why listen to the prophet?”
And that is the message as we begin to listen to what God has to say through Ezekiel. Why listen to the prophet? Why study prophecy? Number one: it is he—it is the prophet that brings witness from heaven to the meaning of life and death and the world to come. It is has been pointed out with great astuteness and correctness that the man is the only animal that contemplates his death and that remembers his life and calls to mind history. Man is the only animal that looks at himself and remembers that he faces death and the eternity to come. When the man does that, when you do that, you cannot help but seek an answer into the impenetrable darkness of the grave into which you are inexorably and inevitably plunged. What is the purpose and meaning of life? And is there any existence or memory beyond the grave? And what is it to die and to be thrust into the never-ending ages of eternity? You cannot help but peer into the darkness.
Now, there is an inevitable response when we do that. We either turn to God, to the prophet of the Lord, to find an answer from heaven, or we inevitably turn to a false prophet; always one or the other. We can turn for an answer to the grave, and to death, and to the meaning of life, and to the eternity to come, to the future, what lies ahead of us. We can turn to the fortuneteller, to the necromancer, communication with the dead, the spirits of the dead, to those who are astrologers and print their horoscopes in the papers. And you cannot have a paper in America without the astrological horoscope. And they seek to find the meaning of life by the course of the stars. Or they go to diviners or soothsayers. In the Holy Word of God there is a wrathful condemnation from heaven for anyone who seeks an answer for the future among the necromancers or the diviners or the soothsayers.
In the prophet [Isaiah 8:19]: “When they shall say unto you, Seek unto them which hath familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God?” Should it not be to God that we seek an answer for the meaning of life and of death and of the eternity to come? Why should they seek from the living to the dead? Why seek communication with the spirits of those who have died? Or if, turning aside from the true message of God, we do not seek an answer to the future with the diviner, and the sorcerer, and the soothsayer, and the astrologer, and the necromancer; then inevitably—inevitably, we turn to the false prophet who purveys words of atheism, or agnosticism, or hedonism—that pleasure and happiness is the goal of life, to secularism, or materialism, or to humanism, bowing down at the shrine of success and affluence in this present life. There is no exception but that if we turn aside from the true prophet of God, we inevitably turn to either the diviner and sorcerer, or to the atheist and the materialist. We worship at one shrine or the other, seeking an answer to the meaning and the future of our human life.
Now the false prophet is ever present to speak to us, and he zealously and continuously and unwearisomely does so. He always has. He is today. He always will. The false prophet is ever with us. He has been with us from the beginning. When the Lord God said to our first father and mother, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, in the day that you disobey, thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17], then the false prophet, taking the form of the subtle serpent, the false prophet says to our first parents: “Yea, did God say, Thou shalt surely die? Thou shalt not die” [Genesis 3:1-4]. He is always present, and he speaks his siren song to our hearts; always, always, he is there speaking. Yea, did God say, “Except you repent, you shall also perish?” [Luke 13:3]. Did God say that? Yea, did God say, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that not the Son [of God] hath not life?” [1 John 5:12]. Did God say that? Did God say, and whosoever’s name is not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life shall be cast into the lake of fire? [Revelation 20:15]. Did God say that? Then the false prophet: “God is too sweet, and too dear, and too loving, and too kind to condemn, to send anybody to hell, to fire, to rejection. God would not do that.” That is the siren voice of the false prophet, and he is always with us. And he fills the pulpits and the schools of the whole, vast world of Christendom; the false prophet. We have him today. And they were the bitterest enemies of the true prophet of God in the days of Jeremiah when he spoke in Jerusalem, and in the days of Ezekiel when he spoke to the exiles in Babylon. One of them in Israel, in Judah, in Jerusalem [Jeremiah 1:1-3]; and the other to the exiles by the River Chebar in the land of Babylon [Ezekiel 1:3].
What a tragedy: these men from God, these prophets from heaven, standing before the people, bringing their message of repentance, and faith, and conversion, and salvation, and by their sides and at the same time, the false prophet saying, “There is no need for repentance. There is no need for commitment. There is no need for faith. There is no need for conversion. Everything is going to be just perfect. God would not judge or send His wrath upon us.”
Listen to Ezekiel as he faces the false prophets among the exiles in Babylon: “And the word of the Lord came unto me saying”—this is Ezekiel 13—”Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel that prophesy, and say thou unto them that prophesy out of their own [heads], Hear ye the word of the Lord; thus saith the Lord God: Woe unto the foolish prophets, that follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” [Ezekiel 13:1-3]. “The Lord saith, they say; albeit I have not even spoken” [Ezekiel 13:7]. “And they say to the people, seducing them, they say, Peace; and there is no peace” [Ezekiel 13:10]. “The prophets of Israel which prophesy concerning Jerusalem, and which see visions of peace for her, and there is no peace, saith the Lord” [Ezekiel 13:16].
I think of Jeremiah. While Ezekiel was saying that to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah is preaching in Jerusalem. And Jeremiah preaches saying, “If you don’t turn, if you don’t repent, if you don’t change, if you don’t be converted, if you don’t accept, if you don’t receive, if you don’t look in faith, if you don’t get right; there is coming the judgment of God upon this city and upon this temple and upon this state [Jeremiah 4:1-31]. And it will be in the form of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar and those hasty bitter Babylonians, and they will destroy all that is dear to your heart and lead you into slavery” [Jeremiah 28:14]. While Jeremiah is preaching that call to repentance and faith, the false prophets were saying: he, he—Jeremiah—is deceiving the people [Jeremiah 28:10-11]. And one of their leaders was named Hananiah, the son of [Azur] [Jeremiah 28:1]. Jeremiah was wearing a yoke of wood [Jeremiah 28:13], a sign that the people were facing slavery and exile and ultimate destruction in the judgment of God. And Hananiah came to Jeremiah while he was preaching [Jeremiah 28:7-9], and he took off the wooden yoke from Jeremiahs neck [Jeremiah 28:10].
And Hananiah said: “Thus saith the Lord God” [Jeremiah 28:11]—thus saith the Lord God; within two years Nebuchadnezzar will return all the captives in Babylon, the thousands that he took captive. Within two years, all the sacred vessels of the temple will be returned [Jeremiah 28:1-3]. And in two years, God will bless this city aboundingly and abundantly. And Jeremiah replied: “God do it. May it be so [Jeremiah 28:6]. But the voice of the Lord hath not thus spoken” [Jeremiah 28:6-9]. And the next day the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah saying, “You go to Hananiah the son of [Azur] and you say to him: Because of the false prophecy that you brought to My people, this year thou shalt certainly die” [Jeremiah 28:15-16]. And in two months Hananiah, the son of [Azur] was dead [Jeremiah 28:17]. Always that false prophet is present. “You don’t need to repent. You don’t need to change. You don’t need to get right with God. You don’t need to accept Him as your Lord and Savior. He is too sweet, and He is too nice, and He is too loving ever to damn any soul in hell”; the false prophet.
But the very fact that there is a false prophet implies that there is a true prophet of God, always. A counterfeit bill implies unconsciously that there is a true currency. A lie implies that somewhere there is the truth. And always there is that true prophet of God who stands up and fearlessly delivers the message of God from heaven. For the most part, he is despised and disregarded and disowned. John Greenleaf Whittier, the great American Christian poet, wrote of the true prophet:
And this, O Prophet-bard of old,
Hast thou thy tale of sorrow told!
The same which earth’s unwelcome seers
Have felt in all succeeding years.
Sport of the changeful multitude,
Nor calmly heard nor understood,
Their song has seemed a trick of art,
Their warnings but the actor’s part.
With bonds, and scorn, and evil will,
The world requites its prophets still.
. . .
Yet shrink not thou, where e’er thou art,
For God’s great purpose set apart,
Before whose far-discerning eyes,
The Future as the Present lies!
Beyond a narrow-bounded age
Stretches thy prophet-heritage,
Through Heaven’s dim spaces angel-trod,
Through arches round the throne of God!
Thy audience, the world and all time
To be the witness of the Truth in thee!
[from “Ezekiel,” John Greenleaf Whittier]
God’s true prophet: he is unmistakable, you will always know him, and you will always recognize him. He has the key to life everlasting. He comes preaching repentance and faith and conversion. He has a divine insight into the meaning of the chaotic milieu and mass of human experience, and he builds a highway in the desert that leads to our Lord God and to life everlasting. Why listen to the prophet? Not only because he brings God’s true message from heaven. Why listen to the prophet? Because he speaks of, and prophesies of, and describes and announces the great coming of the Savior of the world. He points to Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the last chapter, the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Luke, Jesus, raised from the dead speaking to them saying: “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written . . . in the Prophets . . . concerning Me. Then opened He their understanding that they might understand the Scriptures” [Luke 24:44- 45]. The prophets witnessed to the saviorhood of Jesus our Lord. In the sermon that Simon Peter preached in the household of Cornelius at the first Gentile Pentecost—in the heart of that sermon, he said of our Lord: “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him should have remission of sins” [Acts 10:43]—should inherit eternal life.
‘To Him give all the prophets witness.” According to the prophets, Jesus was born into this world [Matthew 1:22]. According to the prophets, Jesus ministered among the people [Matthew 4:14, 8:17]. According to the prophets, Jesus died and was buried [Matthew 12:40]. According to the prophets, Jesus was raised from among the dead [Acts 2:24-32]. According to the prophets, Jesus ascended into heaven [Ephesians 4:8-10]. According to the prophets, He sits in session as our Mediator at the right hand of God Almighty [Psalm 110:1]. And according to the prophets, Jesus is coming again, according to the prophets [Daniel 7:13-14].
Sometimes the prophecy would be fulfilled in the life of our Lord in one instance, such as Micah 5:2: “Thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the cities of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come who shall be Ruler and Governor of My people; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” fulfilled in one instance. Sometimes they are fulfilled in all of the ministry of our Lord. If you read the Gospel of Matthew, over and over and over again will Matthew say: “Thus was fulfilled what was written by the prophet,” then he names the prophet and how it is fulfilled in the life of our Lord [Matthew 1:22, 2:15, 2:17, 2:23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14, 13:35, 21:4, 26:54-56, 27:9]. Jesus Christ our Savior is the incarnation of the voice and message of the prophets; according to what they said, did He live, and die, and rise, and is coming again [Luke 24:27]. The great apocalyptic discourses of our Lord in Matthew 24 and 25, and Mark 13, and in the great Apocalypse, the Revelation at the end—all of these messages are but great summations of what God said in Deuteronomy, and in Daniel, and in Isaiah, and in Ezekiel, and in the rest of the prophets. When He speaks of the judgment upon the nations, He is just reiterating and repeating what the prophets have said. And when he speaks of the great hope of the millennial reign of our Lord [Matthew 19:28, 25:31], he is just saying again what we read in the prophets of God, especially in Ezekiel [Ezekiel 20:37].
You know, its a strange thing—if you will read, if you will study—it is a strange thing, the Christian religion, the Judeo-Christian religion, the religion of this Holy Book is the only religion in the world that has in it prophecy. Why? For the simple reason, if any of these other religions were to attempt to prophesy the future, it would be immediately apparent that they were man-made—that they are not inspired from God. But the Holy Scriptures and the prophets who speak in them will delineate things that are coming hundreds and thousands of years yet to be. And we see some of them fulfilled before our very eyes in our day and in our time. The prophets of God are the messengers of heaven, and they point to Jesus the Savior of the world [Luke 24:25-27; Acts 3:24].
Third, and last: why listen to the prophet? Why study prophecy? Why preach prophecy? The first answer was, he has the message of God from heaven concerning the meaning of life and death and the world to come. The second reason why listen to the prophet? He points to Jesus the Savior of the world. He witnesses to our blessed Lord. Third: he has the only message of hope for the human heart. He does. No one else does. Nowhere else is it found? It is in him and in him alone. All of us, I say, face the inevitable judgment of death—falling into the arms of corruption and the grave, all of us. And however the man may be—whoever he may be, a king, or a prime minister in an empire, or the head of a great corporation, or the leader of a vast business enterprise, or a learned professor, or a gifted actor—whoever he is, he faces that inevitable hour of age, and death, and decay, and darkness. And aside from the hope brought to us by the prophet of God, he faces that inevitable darkness and death and judgment in abject and abysmal despair. No answer, no hope, nothing except to die and to decay, to fall into the arms of corruption. There is no other hope. All civilization and the history of mankind is like that. It is one tragic discouragement and disappointment after another, the whole course of human history.
In the beginning in the Stone Age, men killed one another with the club. Then they learned to kill one another with a bow and an arrow. Then they learned to kill one another with a gun. Now we are learning to kill each other with bombs and with atomic visitations from the skies of the heavens. And the whole earth looks in wonder at the holocaust that inevitably awaits civilization, mankind, the nations of the world. There has never yet been invented any kind of a weapon that was not used to destroy other human beings. And the atomic bomb is no exception. What we have seen in its use in days past is but a prelude of what God will judge the world when it rains on us and falls on us out of the sky.
When I was a youth, when I was a boy, every preacher I ever heard in my life was a postmillennialist, every one of them, including the far-famed great, mighty pastor in this church here. Every one of them was a postmillennialist. “We’re going to preach this world to Jesus. We’re going to convert this world to Christ. We’re going to bring in the kingdom by preaching the gospel.” Every one of them was a postmillennialist. At this present moment in which I stand, there is not a postmillennialist in the world today. Not one. Not one. The events of history, in the twentieth century, has forever discarded the hope of man; that he, in himself, could ever bring in the kingdom of God. The depravity of the human soul and the darkness of the human heart and the iniquity that lies basically in the human race is too great. Outside of the intervention of God, there is not any hope. That is why; listen to the prophets. That is why; listen to the Word of God. He speaks of the unfolding future. No day or incident or development ever catches the sovereign God by surprise. And that will be our sermons in the days that lie ahead. God, God brings hope to His people through the intervention of His great and mighty and saving arm.
The prophets are all alike. They go like this: the first part of their message will be one of judgment, of calling to repentance, of faith and conversion. And with that, if there is no conversion, if there is no turning, then the judgment of God inevitably comes. Every prophet follows just that. Ezekiel, the first part of Ezekiel, the visions of Ezekiel and the preaching of Ezekiel is that. If you do not repent, and if you do not turn, and if you do not accept the Lord, judgment falls [Ezekiel 3:17-21]. Then, the second part of the prophets is always the same. To the faithful remnant, after the judgment has fallen—to the faithful remnant his voice is one of encouragement, and hope, and life everlasting. Isaiah—Isaiah with his bitter denunciations of the sins of the people, then after the judgment has fallen, from the fortieth chapter on, he starts out: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith the Lord God. Yea, speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” [Isaiah 40:1-2]—one of comfort and hope. Ezekiel is just like that. In the first vision of Ezekiel, in which he received his call and his commission, God says to him:
The house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto Me: for all the house of Israel are empty and hardhearted. Behold, I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. As an adamant harder than flint have I made thy forehead: fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.
And he delivers to them the burning, flaming message of God: if you do not turn, God will visit you in wrath from heaven. That is the way that it begins [Ezekiel 3:17-21]. And it ends—it ends in the glorious vision of the millennial age of our Lord, which will be inherited by the remnant who have found refuge and salvation in our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ [Ezekiel 47 and 48].
I must close. The whole message of the prophets is like that. There is hope. You remember in the awful judgment of God upon Jerusalem, when Nebuchadnezzar came and destroyed the city, shut up the great people of God like a vise [2 Kings 25:1-21]. Zedekiah, the rebellious and iniquitous king, sent word to Jeremiah and said, “Is there any word from the Lord? Is there any word from the Lord? Does God say anything?” [Jeremiah 37:17]. We ask that as we face death—our death, as we face the end of civilization, as we face the holocaust of atomic war—is there any hope? That is our cry. Is there any life beyond death? Is there any light beyond the darkness of the grave? Is there any future for our souls? Is there any hope?
That is the unwearying message and comfort of God. There is a living hope in the message of the prophets and in the Word of the Lord. And it has always been that hope. Always; it never fails, never fails, never fails. And if a man is a true prophet of God and that’s what he preaches. There is hope. There is salvation. There is an open door. There is light. There is glory. There is visitation from heaven. There is a presence of the glory of the Lord. In the beginning, in the beginning, this woman through whom Satan brought the destruction and fall of the earth [Genesis 3:1-6], this woman shall be the mother of the Seed that shall crush Satan’s head [Genesis 3:15]. There is always hope. Jacob, looking at his son Judah, out of him shall He arise who shall be the Savior of My people, and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be [Genesis 49:10]. There is hope. To the dying David, thou shall have a Son who shall sit upon thy throne, and He shall reign forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end [2 Samuel 7:12, 16]. There is hope. Always, there is hope. And the Bible [Old Testament] closes in Malachi, the last chapter: “To them that love the Lord shall Righteousness, shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in His wings” [Malachi 4:2]. Always that hope.
And when the Lord came, John the Baptist pointed Him out: “Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world” [John 1:29]. There is always that hope. When our Lord began His ministry, standing before the tomb of Lazarus, He said to Mary and Martha: “Thy brother shall live again [John 11:23]… I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26]. There is hope. Always, there is hope. The message of the prophet is one of hope. When Simon Peter preached, thus did he say: “To Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believes in Him”—shall have everlasting life—”shall have remission of sins” [Acts 10:43]. There is hope. The apostle Paul, God’s prophet, cried, saying: “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?… Thanks be unto God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. There is hope.
Always, there is hope. And the author of Hebrews says: “As it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment: so … they who look for His appearing, when He comes, He shall come apart from sin” [Hebrews 9:27- 28], bringing salvation to those who have found refuge and trust in Him. There is hope. And the last book in the Bible: “Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him” [Revelation 1:7]. He which wrote these words saith: “Behold, I come quickly: and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be [Revelation 22:12]. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” [Revelation 22:17]. “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely—surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, blessed Jesus” [Revelation 22:20].
There is hope. It ends in hope. It is the unwearying message of the prophets. There is a way to be saved. There is a life everlasting [John 3:16, 10:27-30]—and that for the taking, for the asking, for the having, for the receiving, for the believing, for the trusting, for the accepting [Romans 10:9-13]. And so the appeal of the prophet Ezekiel: “Come, turn, for why will ye die?” [Ezekiel 18:31, 33:11]
And that is our appeal to your hearts this morning. Could this be a day of acceptance, of receiving, of gladly opening heart heavenward and Christ-ward and God-ward? “Pastor, this is my wife and these are our children, and we were all coming today. God hath spoken to us and we’re on the way.” A couple you; you and your wife, you and a friend, or just one somebody you. “The Lord has called me to life, to His service, to love the Lord God, and I am on the way, pastor, here I am.” Make that decision in your heart, do it now. And when we stand in this moment, there is time and to spare. If you are in the balcony, down one of these stairways, and the press of people on this lower floor, into one of these aisles, “This is God’s day for me, pastor. The Lord has spoken to me, and I’m on the way, here I am.” May angels attend you and the Spirit of God bless and sanctify you as you answer with your life. Do it now. Make it now. Welcome now.
I. The prophet delivers God-revealed
A. The meaning of life,
death, and eternity
B. The false prophet
contradicts the message of the true prophet
II. The prophet witnesses to the saving of
A. Jesus Christ is the
incarnation of the voice and message of the prophets
B. Christianity is only
religion that has in it prophecy
III. The prophet brings a living hope to the
A. All face inevitable
darkness and death
B. Messages of the
prophets all alike
1. Calling to
repentance, faith and conversion
2. If no turning,
the judgment of God comes