It seems there is always someone claiming to be a prophet or trying to calculate the date of Jesus’ return. I recently saw a rabbi attempting to tie the predictions of Nostradamus to the Torah, and another fellow predicting that Jesus will return on Pentecost 2019. Many prophecy buffs try to fit current news events into Bible prophecy. Though both Herbert Armstrong and Karl Barth advocated “holding the newspaper in one hand while reading the Bible in the other,” they had very different things in mind.
Armstrong was promoting a premillennial-dispensational, futurist approach to prophecy (one still followed by many) and Barth was urging people to stay firmly grounded in Scripture while seeking to understand the ever-changing modern world. “Take your Bible and take your newspaper and read both,” said Barth, “but interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Barth had it right—he understood that staying firmly grounded in Scripture enables us to, 1) understand the core message of the Bible (including its prophetic passages) and, 2) navigate our way through life within a culture that constantly challenges Scripture. We can confidently follow Barth’s advice knowing that the Bible is reliable. That God has given us reliable copies of Scripture was affirmed in the discovery (beginning in 1946) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Old Testament fragments in those ancient scrolls agree 98% of the time with the texts of Scripture passed down to us.
The purpose of Scripture
Jesus taught that the purpose of Scripture is to reveal God—his character, purpose and nature. The Bible fulfills that purpose by pointing to Jesus who is the full and final revelation of God. A Christ-centered reading of Scripture helps us to stay true to that purpose, and helps us avoid misinterpreting prophecy.
Jesus teaches that he is the Living Center of the whole of biblical revelation and that we ought to interpret all Scripture (prophecy included) out of that center. Jesus scathingly criticized the Pharisees for failing on this point. Though they looked to Scripture for eternal life, they failed to recognize Jesus as the source of that life (John 5:36-47). Ironically, their pre-understanding of Holy Scripture blinded them to the fulfillment of Scripture. Jesus showed how to rightly interpret the Bible by showing how all Scripture points to him as its fulfillment (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47). The testimony of the apostles in the New Testament affirms this Christ-centered interpretive method.
As the perfect image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), Jesus reveals God’s nature through his interaction with humanity. This is good to bear in mind when reading the Old Testament. It’s especially relevant in keeping us away from things like trying to apply the story of Daniel in the lion’s den to a current situation in our world, say a vote for political office. The prophecies of Daniel are not given to tell us who to vote for. Rather, the book of Daniel shares a story about a man being blessed for his faithfulness to God. In that way, Daniel points to the faithful God who is always for us.
But is the Bible relevant?
Many people question the idea that a book as ancient as the Bible can be relevant today. After all, the Bible says nothing about such modern things as cloning, modern medicine, and space travel. Modern science and technology raise questions and conundrums that did not exist in Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible is highly relevant in our day because it reminds us that our technological advances have not changed the human condition, nor have they changed God’s good purpose and plans for humankind.
The Bible enables us to understand our role in God’s plan, including the coming fulness of his kingdom. Scripture helps us recognize the purpose and meaning of our lives. It teaches us that, rather than ending in nothingness, our lives are headed toward a great reunion where we’ll meet Jesus face-to-face. The Bible reveals to us that there is meaning to life—we have been created to be in union and communion with our triune God. The Bible also provides a guide to equip us for this abundant life (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It does so by continually pointing us to Jesus, the one who gives us abundant life by connecting us to the Father (John 5:39) and by sending us his Spirit.
Yes, the Bible is reliable, with a distinctive, highly-relevant purpose. Nevertheless, many people dismiss it. Back in the 1700s, French philosopher Voltaire predicted that in 100 years the Bible would pass into the mists of history. Well, he was wrong. The Guinness World Records states that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Over 5 billion copies have been sold and distributed to date. It’s both humorous and ironic that Voltaire’s home in Geneva, Switzerland, was purchased by the Geneva Bible Society and became a Bible distribution center. So much for predictions!
The purpose of prophecy
Contrary to the view of some, the purpose of Bible prophecy is not to help us predict the future, but to help us know Jesus, the Lord of all history. Prophecy prepares the way for Jesus and points to him. Note what the apostle Peter wrote concerning the calling given to prophets:
Concerning this salvation [described in the previous seven verses], the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…. (1 Pet. 1:10-12a)
Peter says that the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) is the source of prophecy, and that the purpose of prophecy is to predict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He implies that when you’ve heard the message of the gospel, you’ve heard all you need to know about prophecy. The apostle John made a similar point in writing this: “Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 19:10b).
Scripture is clear: Jesus is the purpose of prophecy. Bible prophecy tells us who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he will yet do. Our focus in GCI is on Jesus (and the life he gives us in communion with God) not on geo-political alliances, trade wars or whether someone predicted something in a timely manner. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is both the foundation and the completion of our faith. Our Lord is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Loving Jesus our Savior, the focus of all prophecy,
PS: GCI Update will be published next on September 12. Look for GCI Equipper on September 5. For those of you in the U.S., I wish you a relaxing Labor Day holiday on September 3.
Registration for the Fall semester at Grace Communion Seminary opens Monday, August 27. The courses being offered are listed below (instructor indicated). They run from September 10 through November 12, with final work due by December 3.
BI501 Hermeneutics (Mike Morrison)
BI541 Introductory Biblical Greek (Shep Shepherd)
CH501 Church History: The First Millennium (Neil Earle)
CM501 Pastoral Leadership (Russell Duke)
CM503 Christian Counseling (Ted Johnston)
CM507 Experiencing the Trinity (Larry Hinkle)
NT502/ BI522 The Gospels (Mike Morrison)
TH503 The Spirit, the Church, and Eschatology (Gary Deddo)
GCI’s congregation in Derby, KS, recently held a Sunday service that included the blessing of backpacks full of school supplies assembled by the congregation. These were given to students at nearby elementary and middle schools the congregation is reaching out to in multiple ways.
On July 23-26, GCS faculty member Randy Bloom conducted an intensive class in Church Planting. The class, attended by six students from the U.S. and U.K., was held in GCI’s Home Office in Charlotte, NC. At the end of the intensive, Randy conducted a communion service, attended by most of the GCI home office staff. Doing so accentuated the joy and unity experienced throughout the week. Here is a video with pictures of the class:
On June 25-28, GCS faculty member Dan Rogers conducted an intensive class in Homiletics. The week-long intensive portion of the course, held in Cincinnati, was preceded by seven weeks of online work. During the intensive, the five students each gave three sermons. All agreed that meeting together face-to-face was dynamic and helpful, providing interaction, mutual critique, encouragement, and fellowship. One of the students, Anthony Mullins, shared this:
The intensive was a great success. Tangible growth took place in all the students over the course of a few days together. The relational bonding was exceptional as well. All the students mentioned they could not imagine taking the course online without the intensive. Thanks to Dan for his competent teaching guidance.
The following report is from Bob Miller, pastor of Grace Covenant Fellowship, GCI’s Birmingham, AL, congregation.
Like most GCI congregations, we were small—averaging 15-20 in attendance—and praying for guidance to see how God wanted to use us. We were getting older and “church planting” seemed beyond our present gift mix, as well as beyond the level of energy required. Like most churches our size we were rocking along, meeting in our “holy huddle” each week and faithfully doing what we could in terms of outreach ministry and supporting our denomination. But a welcome change came along—an “open door” to do something completely different.
One morning at breakfast, Ruth encouraged me to contact Aspire Physical Recovery Center, about 10 minutes from where we normally met for church, and ask them if we could provide a worship service for their guests. Ruth works full-time for a fairly large church, and folks had come there looking for churches who could help them provide worship. But the larger churches have their pastors leading the various Sunday morning worship times, and are not as “portable” as we are. So Ruth knew the need was there. When I contacted them the program director’s immediate response was yes! “How did you hear about us?” she said. “I have been calling churches all around our area to see if they could come and do a Bible study or a church service. Any day of the week would be fine.”
That conversation took place in November 2015. We had been paying $750 a month in rent at another church. Since we would be providing a service for them, we would not have to pay any rent! So we bought an electric keyboard and speakers—basic things we would need. We also purchased a fold-up table-top lectern, which would work well. The activity room where we meet for church had tables and chairs, and we are allowed to store the equipment we bought in the activity room closet.
We held our first church service there in December 2015 from 10:30 – 11:15 am. It’s very casual as some who attend come in wheelchairs or are on walkers. Some are full-time residents and others are there for a few weeks recovering from strokes, heart attacks, surgeries, etc. They are mostly older folks—like us, so we can relate. We usually open the service with two hymns, then have intercessory prayer, a reading of an inspirational poem by our 91-year-old member, another hymn, scripture reading, a 20 min sermon, closing hymn and prayer. We are blessed to have a young woman who does beautiful PowerPoint graphics for the hymns and sermons.
We now have about double our attendance (33 this past Sunday). Often family members come with the patients, so we are privileged to serve them as well. The folks seem to love having the scriptures up on the screen, so they can follow along. We stay seated while singing so that those in wheelchairs can still see. This past Sunday we had communion, and they appreciate being able to participate in that. The feedback from the patients and their families has been incredibly encouraging. We have had folks from a variety of denominations—Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, you name it! Since the first of this year we have had about 140 first-time visitors!
One family member was so inspired by what we were doing that he sent us a check for $500! We do not take up an offering, but we have a basket out on the table where our members bring their donations and occasionally guests will give a little. But we don’t want them to think we’re after their money. We view what we are doing as an outreach ministry. Our small congregation “came to life” in serving others. Their attendance became more regular!
It’s wonderful not to have to pay rent or maintain a building! We continue to do what we were doing before, such as our annual shoebox ministry, supporting other charities and denominational ministries. We did have to discontinue our discipleship class that we were having prior to worship, but the benefit of serving others far outweighs that small sacrifice. Our members connect with the visitors and some of them become “regulars” who are with us from week to week.
It’s something like a “parachurch” type ministry, and I think that many of our smaller churches might be able to do something like this. It’s different, of course, from planting a new church with the anticipation of growing a local church congregation. But when you see how these folks appreciate the chance to worship the God they love, it feels very rewarding. The need is great, because these rehab centers and assisted living facilities are popping up all over. At least they are in the Birmingham area.
We use primarily well-known hymns, because these folks love them. I think it’s important to know your audience and what makes a worshipful experience for them. We use some praise songs, also, but try to choose songs people can sing easily. We have our electric keyboard and a bass guitar for accompaniment, and it works beautifully. We’ve had some interesting experiences. One guest had been a gospel singer and asked to sing for us. One lady asked to sing and sang a capella beautifully.
We love being able to share the good news with new folks every week!
This “From the President” letter is by GCI Vice President Greg Williams.
Dear GCI Brothers and Sisters,
Unfortunately, many people (including some Christians) associate the term evangelical more with political and sociological positions than with the sincerely-held faith of a large group of Christians spread throughout the world. This misunderstanding is due in large part to the way the media uses the term evangelical, though it also results from organizations and individuals who, calling themselves evangelicals, espouse very conservative (even extreme) political and social ideologies.
When we refer to GCI as being evangelical, we are using that term, not politically or sociologically, but theologically. To say that we are evangelicals is to say that we identify with Jesus Christ, who is the heart and core of the gospel (the evangel). The same can be said for the 40+ organizations (including GCI) that make up the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). In the U.S., GCI has held NAE membership for many years. We also hold membership in similar organizations outside the U.S. While NAE members may not agree on all issues, they all are theologically evangelical—sharing a commitment to orthodox Christian doctrine and a passion to make Christ known to a lost and hurting world.
Through attending NAE meetings, I’ve come to know this organization as one that holds true to Christian orthodoxy, desires greater understanding and engagement with the culture, and demonstrates a humble spirit of self-reflection. I have been impressed with the quality of the speakers at NAE gatherings. They help NAE members grow in understanding how the gospel relates to the challenging and often divisive issues we face in today’s world. These issues include homosexuality, gender dysphoria, a worldwide refugee crisis, and Muslims in America. At one NAE gathering, we toured the U.S. capital and heard from members of Congress who are Democrats and Republicans. The goal of NAE President Leith Anderson is not to espouse sociological positions or political agendas, but to help the leaders of NAE member organizations gain a more fully Christ-centered, gospel-shaped perspective on what is going on in the world.
The approach NAE takes to current (often controversial and divisive) issues within our culture is something I hope to see reflected more and more in the approach taken throughout the ranks in GCI. It’s a challenge for us to think with the mind of Christ about these issues instead of thinking out of a perspective limited by our life experiences (our context). Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, puts it this way:
It is striking that our context is the most pervasive influence that shapes us, even if we profess Jesus as Lord. A pure Christian identity isn’t available, because we all live immersed in context.
Dr. Labberton also notes that we all need “a new social location”—a new mindset that results from the union and communion we have with Christ, by the Spirit. In GCI, we aspire to have that mindset—what we refer to as aChrist-centered worldview. We then seek to work across denominational lines with others who share this worldview. We come together through the NAE and other venues, not to justify ourselves, but to hear a fresh word from the Lord, who speaks to us all through Scripture and brings us all to see whatever blindness we may still suffer from.
GCI and all NAE members aspire to be evangels who, with the Spirit’s guidance and empowerment, faithfully follow Jesus and his gospel. As evangelicals, we seek to witness to the truth that is in Jesus, who alone has the power to save. We strive to rise above personal hurts, prejudices and societal trends to confidently follow in Jesus’ footsteps. We seek to grow in Jesus’ faith, humility and compassion, including his commitment to justice and righteousness for the dignity of all people.
One of the benefits I derive personally from GCI’s NAE membership is the joy of rubbing shoulders with leaders from other denominations that share with GCI a commitment to Jesus and his gospel. I find them to be both encouraging and wise. It’s extremely helpful to me to talk with them about what they have experienced, and to compare notes about all manner of shared concerns and experiences.
I pray that we in GCI will grow in our evangelical commitments and practices. I pray we’ll be even more passionate in expressing the love and life of Jesus through our actions, and in sharing the truth of his gospel in our conversations.
Thankful that we are evangelicals,
PS: For help in approaching, with the mind of Christ, the challenging (and often divisive) ethical issues that arise in our world, be sure to read the Worldview Conversion series currently running in GCI Equipper—click here for the first article.