Dear Brother _________,
Greetings in Christ’s Name.
Back in the old days, lots of ecclesias had what were called Mutual Improvement Classes. In these classes, brothers critiqued one another’s exhortations, Bible classes and presiding in what was called constructive criticism. Sometimes it worked better than others. Very few ecclesias have done that for a long time, and nobody has ever critiqued me, unless it was informally or behind my back. But I’m going to go way out on a limb and offer what I hope will be constructive criticism of your last exhortation here. I hope you will accept it in this light.
Certainly, as you said, we would do well to look at what is happening in the world and to “lift up our heads” (Luke 21:28) and “watch and pray” (v 36). As you also said, it is true that “we don’t know the day or the hour” when Christ will return (Matt 24:36; 25:13; Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7). I believe, as you do, that we are living near the end, but I do not believe it is because of any single incident. Rather, it is because of the general tenor of world affairs.
Your reference to Christ’s words in his Olivet prophecy (Luke 21) is quite appropriate here. He mentions wars and revolutions, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and other fearful events (vv 9-11). Those are very general statements, with no specifics whatsoever, and I think Jesus spoke in such generalities for a very good reason: If we allow ourselves to get too specific, we run the very real risk of guessing wrongly as to which events are important, and which are merely passing and essentially meaningless. Thus, our guesses may be proved wrong by the passage of time.
This happens much more often than we like to admit. I’d suggest you find some of the old Christadelphian booklets that sought to document each year’s important “milestones” on the road to the Kingdom of God. If you can find them, they go back at least 30 years. Try to get your hands on a copy that’s 20 or 25 years old. (They can be found on Steve Genusa’s “Christadelphian Bookshelf 2009” DVD, back to 1977.) Check out the events that the brother felt were very significant in 1985 or 1990 as the fulfillment of Last Days prophecy. Then compare those events with the passing years since that time. I think you will find that much of what the writer thought were wonderful then-current “signs of the times” turned out to be perhaps overstated in their significance.
My problem with this ‘speculative’ approach is: How many times can we cry “Wolf!” when it turns out that there is no wolf? If we do too much of this, then our listeners — brothers and sisters, young folks or friends — may conclude that we don’t know what we are talking about. Their assessment may be unfair, but they will have a point. After all, we very confidently quoted Bible passages to “prove” what we were saying, didn’t we? We sounded so absolutely certain when we said that such-and-such was a wonderful sign of Christ’s imminent return.
And when we let ourselves really get carried away with that confidence, we actually sounded like we possessed the “gift of prophecy”, which we most certainly did not have, or perhaps the “gift of discerning” prophecy, which we did not have either (1Cor 12:10).
A few months or years passed, however, and circumstances changed. The expected threat never materialized. Might it have been better if we had waited, and “watched”, a bit longer before jumping to what proved to be a wrong conclusion?
Because our confident predictions did not come to pass, some of our listeners might even conclude that we are “false prophets”, and that Christ isn’t coming after all. That’s the danger, and it can be a real tragedy. Christadelphian history, over more than 150 years, is littered with quite a number of false or premature predictions, especially when the speakers or writers tried to set dates and to identify which world leader or which nation was about to do something very important to trigger the return of Christ.
I think there is one very big exception to what I said earlier about Jesus prophesying in generalities, and it is also found in Luke 21 (and the other references to the Olivet prophecy). It has to do with Israel: “When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies…” (v 20). This is a very specific statement, but only specific about Jerusalem (and by implication the Jews). It is definitely not specific about exactly when this will happen, nor is it specific about precisely which nations will be involved.
I think there are important reasons for this. Jesus seems to be saying, ‘Always be on the alert for general unrest and trouble in the world, and especially regarding Israel and Jerusalem being threatened by neighboring nations, but don’t get caught up in trying to guess all the other details.’
Following Christ’s example in this would allow us to “watch and pray” for Christ’s return, as we should, while at the same time avoiding the wrong guesses that might bring discredit upon the gospel we believe.
One more thing
I believe we have an obligation, above and beyond watching the “signs of the times” and exhorting one another, to always tell the truth. This is fundamental. If we make assertions, or if we repeat others’ assertions, we are obliged to use every prudent means to prove that what we are saying is a fair representation of the facts. And we are obliged not to pass along anything which is not accurate.
While a number of things you said in your exhortation are indisputably true, I think I heard some assessments that came directly from highly partisan political groups. I must say two things here: Firstly, I take it for granted that, as Christadelphians, we take no active part in the political process of this country. Secondly: Even if we do pay attention to political analysis, I do not think personally that exhortations are the place for anything resembling that sort of discussion. Nevertheless, since you have introduced it on Sunday morning, the following should be said also.
As with many such political attacks which pass for ‘news reports’, they are biased — sometimes extremely biased — for one side of a political campaign, and against the other side. As far as I can see, this is more or less equally true no matter from which side of the political divide we take them. A 30-second sound bite that distorts the truth, at least slightly, or omits some of the facts, is plainly the most efficient way to get one’s political message across to the electorate, even if it is not 100% truthful. In such an environment, it is not sufficient for us to choose the side we subjectively like the best, and then assume that side has a monopoly on truth.
In the last 20 years or so, the political scene in America has grown so partisan that neither side really wants to engage the other. Both sides talk about the other but not so much to the other. The unfair, slanted political attacks have gotten so bad that objective, non-partisan groups have started checking the so-called facts in many negative political statements. Here are the websites for some of the most prominent: FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, and Snopes.com.
Practically any report that comes from a political source needs to be fact-checked before it is passed along. If you (or someone you know) feels the need to cite “the facts” about any event in the political arena, you really should go to one or more of the reputable fact-check websites and see what they have to say about that. And if there is nothing on those sites, then you still don’t need to accept something just because you read it on the internet or hear it in other media or by word of mouth. There are other means of checking the facts yourself. Based in the USA alone, there are websites for CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, AP (Associated Press), and UPI (United Press International).
What’s the point?
Why is this important? Why should we even bother? Because, above and beyond watching the “signs of the times” and waiting for the return of Christ, telling the truth is one of the most important things we can do. The Bible, from the Law of Moses to Proverbs to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, tells us that bearing false witness and slander are sins. It is possible to slander even national or international political figures. And if we pass along what proves to be slander, even if spoken or written by others, then we ourselves become gossips and talebearers. There is absolutely no reason for us to run the risk of being guilty of these shortcomings. We should be able to consider the signs of Christ’s coming without resorting to half-truths and distortions about any single group and any political leaders. The apostle Paul had this to say about the rulers of this world:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves… He [the one in authority] is God’s servant… Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Rom 13:1,2,4,5, NIV).
It has always been true, and a fundamental principle for Christadelphians, that “the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Dan 4:25, 32). Therefore, the Lord God and He alone is in absolute control of the affairs of the world. We look for, and eagerly hope for, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to rule over this earth. But in the meanwhile we must always remember that the rulers of the nations, whoever they may be and whether we personally approve of them or not, have been ordained by God Himself for specific purposes. Indeed, we are commanded to pray for them:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone — for kings and all those in authority” (1Tim 2:1,2, NIV).
Certainly we should not disparage them, mock them, or call in question their authority. In their own ways, they are also “God’s servants”.
Paul also tells us that “God works in all things for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). Later in the same chapter, he says specifically that “all things” include “any powers” (v 38). This means of course that, no matter which leaders are elected or otherwise chosen, God will work in and through them for the ultimate good of His children — and we are those children! We need to remember this, and remind ourselves of this, much more often than we do. While others may look at the world or our nation, or the political leaders, with uncertainty, alarm, anger or fear (Luke 21:26; Matt 24:6), we do not need to do so. No matter what happens next, our heavenly Father is still in control, and everything will turn out right:
“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Yours in Christ,
George Booker (Austin Leander, TX)