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If you want to know when an event in the Bible is to happen, look for time indicators. Some of them are very specific: after three days, in 40 days, after 40 years, at the completion of 70 years. There are less specific time indicators like “near,” “shortly,” “quickly,” and “at hand.” These time words are at the heart of the debate between those who claim that certain prophetic events have already taken place and those who maintain they are yet to be fulfilled. The division between these two views is deep and wide, and yet the implications for interpretive accuracy are fundamental. If prophetic events described in the Bible are said to be “near,” and “near” is interpreted in a fluid way so that it has no specificity in terms of time, then how is it ever possible to nail down the fulfillment of prophetic events? A study of these time words in the NT will show that they always refer to events that were on the near horizon. Get a concordance and check it out for yourself.
Modern-day prophetic speculation lives and breathes off the promise that prophetic events are always near. They take prophecies that the Bible says were soon to be fulfilled for first-century readers and reshape them to fit contemporary headlines. As a result, we are always living on the precipice of some near end-time event. This is why modern-day prophecy books sell by the millions. Few people want to know what happened prophetically two thousand years ago, but they do want to know what’s going to happen in the next few days. And it doesn’t seem to matter that prophecy books are revised every few years to fit the latest headlines. The latest example is the revision of John Walvoord’s Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis. Even though Walvoord died in 2002, his book is being given new life with a slightly revised title by its new co-author Mark Hitchcock—Armageddon, Oil, and Terror. The book was first published in 1974 in an attempt to explain what the latest in “prophetic events,” the OPEC oil crisis. Walvoord wrote, “Each day’s headlines raise new questions concerning what the future holds.” The book was reprinted in 1976 and then sank without a trace until a revised edition appeared in late 1990 when the six-month build-up for the Gulf War was in its final stages. The new edition reflected changing world events:
The world today is like a stage being set for a great drama. The major actors are already in the wings waiting for their moment in history. The main stage props are already in place. The prophetic play is about to begin. . . . Our present world is well prepared for the beginning of the prophetic drama that will lead to Armageddon. Since the stage is set for this dramatic climax of the age, it must mean that Christ’s coming for his own is very near.
When the Gulf War ended abruptly, the book was being remaindered for twenty-five cents a copy, if it was bought by the case! Once again, Walvoord’s prophetic speculation proved inaccurate. This did not stop Tyndale House Publishers from releasing this third edition with the revised title and content to reflect a change in headlines. The promotion material assures us that its content “is as current as today’s news . . . and every prediction rings true.” Where have we heard this before?
Walvoord claimed in 1990 that “Christ’s coming for his own is very near.” The New Testament, written nearly 2000 years ago, said that Christ’s coming was “near” (James 5:8–9; Rev. 1:3). In his September 16, 2001, International Intelligence Briefing Report, aired on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Hal Lindsey told viewers: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the end began. . . . The events, even of this week, show us that we’re very near the end. The whole predicted scenario is fulfilled right before our eyes. All the pieces of that predicted puzzle that would indicate Christ’s coming was just around the corner are in place. . . . I believe that, right now, we need to focus on the great hope that we have that Jesus Christ is soon coming and [is] going to translate [rapture] us from mortal to immortal.” This is the same Hal Lindsey who assured his readers in the 1970 publication of Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus would rapture His church before 1988. He’s the same “prophecy expert” who claimed in his The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon that “The decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” You would think that these errors in predicting the end would have been enough for Christians to rethink the basic tenets of dispensationalism.
Notice how Lindsey, like Walvoord, uses the time words “near,” “around the corner,” and “soon” to describe events that will take place shortly. Every person who reads their choice of time words knows exactly what “near,” “soon,” and “just around the corner.” Yet when these same time words are used in the Bible, all of a sudden they take on a mystical, non-literal meaning. John writes, “for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). Why doesn’t John’s “near” mean the same as Walvoord and Lindsey’s “near”? Why didn’t the use of “the Judge is standing right at the door” (James 5:8–9) mean the same as Lindsey’s “just around the corner” to those who first read James’ letter?
The latest entry into prophetic speculation is John MacArthur’s Because the Time is Near. He writes in the Introduction:
As noted on page 332, the book of Revelation deserves immediate proclamation because the end is near. As the angel told John in the final chapter of Revelation, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book for the time is near.” (22:10). And so we study Christ’s future return—a return Jesus Himself says is imminent (22:7, 12, 20).
Does MacArthur’s “near” mean the same as the Bible’s “near”? Remember that John received the Revelation in the first century. What did its first readers understand by “near”? These would be good questions to ask him. Drop MacArthur a line and let me know if he responds. For the first ten people who get a response, I’ll send you some free books.