But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them. - John 16:4
There are in Scripture a great many promises of things to come. In a sense, the whole story hinges on the promise to Abram in the twelfth chapter of Genesis that his descendants would become a great nation. In succeeding chapters, this promise is made more and more specific, and all kinds of ¡°secondary¡± or ¡°auxiliary¡± promises are made. It is in fact the strength of this theme that undergirds the modern Israeli conviction that the promise of the Promised Land is still in effect, that the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is profoundly and almost spiritually theirs.
It used to be the accepted scholarly theory that the prophets seemed ddinfallible because the only prophecies recorded in the pages of the Bible were the ones that had come true. In a sense, this is supported by a passage in Deuteronomy: ¡°And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the Lord hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him¡± Deuteronomy 18:21f.).
This will not cover all cases, though. One reason is that unless a prophecy named a specific time of fulfilment, one could always argue that it had not been fulfilled yet. So Christians still wait for the Second Coming, and Jews for the First. There is one small group of Jews that believes the nation of Israel should not have been founded and should not be founded until the Messiah comes.
A more basic reason the Deuteronomic rule will not work in all cases is that many of the prophecies are quite obviously not intended to be taken literally. When Isaiah speaks of valleys being exalted and mountains and hills brought low, when Malachi speaks of a divine fire that will burn the wicked like chaff but heal the hurts of the righteous, when our Old Testament reading speaks of streams breaking forth in the desert and a highway to Zion appearning in the blossoming wilderness, we cannot help suspecting that we are dealing with passionate images of healing and restoration rather than with careful, factual descriptions. When we read of stars falling from heaven and landing on the earth, knowing as we do that any single star is vastly greater than our planet, that if they drew near, it would be our earth that fell into the star, then we can be quite sure that we are not dealing with literal prediction.
In fact, our text would seem to indicate that the whole effort to calculate when this or that prophecy is going to be fulfilled is wasted effort. ¡°But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.¡± These particular prophecies, that is, are not intended to inform us about what is going to happen, but to help us to understand what is happening. They are couched in symbolic language rather than as literal descriptions because they can be fulfilled in any number of different outward forms. They will be fulfilled in any number of different forms because they touch on the essential and unchanging will of the Lord.
For example, if we see in our Old Testament lesson an image of the Lord¡¯s constant will to bless us--to open our mental eyes and ears, to energize our lame wills--then we can realize that every insight we have, every true signal we pick up, every animating impulse we feel, is a fulfillment of this prophecy. We can find ourselves in bleak and disheartening circumstances, with discouragement around us and within us, and know that the Lord is at work to make streams of water break forth in this desert so that it will begin to blossom like a rose. We can find ourselves faced with daunting difficulties, and know that it is the Lord¡¯s intent to raise up a way through these challenges toward his own blessed kingdom.
This does not mean that these marvelous things will happen. Not all stories have happy endings. There is injustice in this world of ours, which means that we may do everything right--theoretically, at least--and still have everything go wrong. This is the way it is, and the way it has to be. If life were perfectly fair, if we suffered every time we did something wrong and were rewarded every time we did something right, it would not be long before we were very well-behaved robots, brainwashed into compliance with the laws of life. No, we are free not only to rebel against the Lord¡¯s laws, but to believe that we are getting away with it. A Saddam Hussein can actually believe that he is doing God¡¯s will. So can the designers of nuclear weapons that threaten our continued survival, for that matter. So can a Ghandi, a Mother Theresa, and a Jimmy Jones. This spiritual freedom is not for the faint-hearted. It is strong stuff.
Our theology tells us that this freedom is the reason Jesus so often spoke in parables. He himself explained it in characteristically cryptic form: ¡°For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind¡± (John 9:39). This sounds like a strange mission, but its intent is not all that difficult to discern. All we need to do is to recognize that there are different levels of ¡°seeing,¡± and we can rephrase it to read more literally, ¡°. . . so that sight might be given to those who realize that they area blind, and so that those who claim to see might recognize their blindness.¡±
The Lord is at work in every situation, everywhere, at every moment. It is left absolutely up to us whether or not we will discover this to be true. In order to discover it, we have not only to want to know, we have to want it to be true. That is, we have to decide that compassion is better than egotism, that honesty is better than self-deception, that love is wiser than greed, before we know that these are divine qualities. If we want to, we can convince ourselves that ruthlessness and greed are what make the world go round.
So one of the crucial functions of revelation is to give us clues as to the actual nature of things. The world around us sends so many mixed and contradictory signals that it is simply impossible to sort them out. Two people can look at what is presumably the same world from what is presumably the same place, and one can see beauty and the other ugliness. There is plenty of ugliness to be seen, and there is plenty of beauty to be seen, and none of us has the breadth and depth of vision to say with confidence which predominates.
For this reason, not all of the prophecies of Scripture are prophecies of healing and beauty. In the Old Testament prophecies, visions of coming disaster clearly predominate, and one may have to search to discover that beyond the catastrophe there does lie some form of redemption. In the New Testament there is the expectation of the return of the Lord, but there is also the expectation of traumatic times. ¡°And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in diverse places. Al these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name¡¯s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved¡± (Matthew 24:6-13).
Again, if we look for some particular time when all these things will happen, we miss the point. Actually, if we are the ¡°you¡± to which this is addressed, and we take it literally, then one of the signs we are looking for is our own execution--¡±Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: . . .¡± Since this obviously has not happened to any of us yet, the prophecy obviously has not come true for us yet--and when it does, it will be too late anyway.
No, I would urge that the prophecy is saying something quite different, and much more relevant to our own lives. It is saying that we must not be misled by the appearance that everything is going wrong. It is all to easy to read the headlines, to watch the news, and to be overwhelmed by the amount of senseless violence that is presented to us. In one form or another, we hear the same old question over and over again, ¡°If there is a loving God, how can there be so much evil in the world?¡± This has been argued as a philosophical or theological problem for centuries, with both sides regularly claiming victory. There is a sense in which it is not an important question, though, until it becomes a question of the heart; and the vision of traumatic last times speaks far more directly to the heart than to the brain.
Things can go very wrong for us personally. Things can go very wrong for our family, for our church, for our nation, even for our whole world. Still, the Lord tells us, the ones who endure to the end will be saved; which is a symbolic way of saying that the greatest power in our world, the one power which is in fact infinite and divine, is the power of goodness. When that claim is set in the context of international wars, of bitter persecution of the faithful, of false prophets, earthquakes, and famines, then it is not some form of romantic idealism. One could hardly accuse Jesus in this speech of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. He is seeing the world at its ugliest, just as we sometimes do, and is saying that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of love, is still the triumphant kingdom.
I mentioned that this visions speaks more to the heart than to the brain. It is couched in images, leaving us free to see in it the meaning we are prepared to accept. Revelation is a guide to our understanding, a guide who offers rather than a tyrant who dictates.
Yes, there are promises in Scripture that have not come true. There are promises that never will come true literally, that never can come true literally. Only when we come to grips with this are we free to look deeper and to discover that the promises are telling us about what is happening under the surface right now, prophecies not of what lies ahead, but of what lies within.