Starting off a new year always brings a rash of predictions. People are intrigued by a prophet foretelling a specific event, whether it is the psychics making outlandish claims in the National Enquirer, political pundits holding forth on CNN or in the NY Times, or church-oriented prophetic voices trying to outdo one another with declarations which they often try to rhyme (not sure what promise will work with “17”). To be honest, we’ve avoided these prophecies for years, but for the sake of this article we’ve deliberately scanned the net. We found one “prophet” who says God is speaking about the New Year because on a recent trip, “My hotel room was 317…my Wi-Fi code was 1117…my rental car tag was 1017…my luggage came out of carousel 17". They are convinced that the number 17 itself is “always appearing and speaking to me like an oracle.” It seems the line between the National Enquirer and some church websites is increasingly blurring.
I’m not making fun as much as I’m lamenting that God’s people are not being equipped for the times that are coming. The flood of New Year prophetic utterances is made more intense this year by Trump’s election, but the “insight” is often frivolous or simply the fruit of human imagination, at best. At its worst, it is sensationalist, nationalistic or outright false. We are taking a different approach that is based on a recognition that as we enter 2017 we are living in unprecedented times foretold by Christ: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Mt 24:7-8); and “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea…" (Luke 21:25). This newsletter looks at three key issues for the Church to contend with in 2017: a) a scan of the nations in a state of perplexity and anguish, b) what experiencing birth pains means, and c) the required posture for a believer.
Scan of the Nations
Jesus said a key to End Time reality is nation rising against nation causing anguish and perplexity. The word “anguish” means to be in a state of acute anxiety involving mental distress because the way forward is too narrow to navigate; nations have been hemmed in with no way forward. The word “perplexity” describes being at wit’s end and at a loss as to how to proceed. It is the negative expression of a word which means having a way or resource, defining an environment in which resources have been removed. The conditions that are stressing the earth and their manifestation in each nation are far too numerous to mention here, but let’s do a brief scan.
Refugee Crisis The refugee crisis pouring out of the Middle East and North Africa is immense – about 1 in 100 of the people on earth have been forcibly displaced and fled their countries due to war, famine, etc. Of those fleeing, more than 13 die each and every day, often at sea. It is not just a humanitarian crisis but also a political one. Refugees from Syria and Afghanistan are pouring into Europe, which made a deal with Turkey to receive them (i.e., keep them out of Europe) in exchange for billions of dollars and a promise to fast track Turkey’s entrance into the EU. Meanwhile, Turkish president Erdogan cracked down on his political opponents, which brought condemnation from the very EU he is trying to enter. In response, Erdogan publicly threatened to “open the border gates” to allow immigrants and refugees to flood into Europe where terrorist attacks are increasing; the truck attack in Berlin by a Tunisian during Christmas week is the latest example in Europe, while the first attack of 2017 was in Istanbul where 39 died at a nightclub. As the refugee crisis spreads, the global threat of terrorism will intensify.
Political Crisis The election of Trump and Brexit are two events among many others that are remaking the global political landscape. There are many points of tension and redefinition:
a) In addition to the immigration crisis and the burden of being the primary engine of a weakening EU economy, Germany has to consider nuclear deterrence against Russian hegemony because NATO is devolving and Germany is not a nuclear power. Friendly nuclear nations they might turn to may not be able to help. The UK is moving away from Europe (BREXIT) and France has already told Germany it only has enough for its own use should things escalate.
b) France is a very liberal society, but Frances Fillon is a center-right candidate who won an election that will posture him against a candidate from the far right in their upcoming general election. France and many other nations are moving towards nationalistic isolationism and xenophobic policies, while at the same time they try to stay profitable in the midst of a globalized and interconnected economy.
c) Russia has growing ambitions and is increasingly belligerent, including accusations that they manipulated the recent U.S. elections through cyber terrorism. Putin recently called a summit to find solutions for beleaguered Syria-involved Russia, Turkey and Iran. Neither the U.S. or the U.N. were invited and have decreasing influence in a key region of the world.
d) China is the rising empire, and they are expressing their strength by arming disputed islands in the South China Sea. All of Asia is in flux; the president of South Korea was impeached last month and the Philippines is moving away from its historic alliance with the U.S. and expressing greater openness to China. Many fear the possibility of an armed confrontation between the US and China, but just as potentially destabilizing would be a trade war. While the US operates as the global economy’s consumption engine, China is the production force that drives low prices. A trade war of even slight proportions would have enormous repercussions on the U.S. (and the global) economy.
e) Recently, president-elect Trump stumbled into the bitter and historic relationship between nuclear powers India, a key U.S. ally, and Pakistan. After the Prime Minister of Pakistan called to congratulate Trump, the incoming American president pronounced Nawaz Sharif to be a “terrific guy” who led a “fantastic country.” Trump went on to say about Pakistan, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.” Diplomatic language is nuanced, and nations are watching carefully to discern the intent of the new president, and Trump’s call with Sharif sounded to India like the U.S. was changing the balance of power in the sub-continent. India responded by saying, “We look forward to the president-elect helping Pakistan address the most outstanding of its outstanding issues: terrorism,” which can be translated as, “Trump and the West should remember where jihadist terrorists come from” and “Our relationship with the United States is not about personalities—it is about institutions,” which interpreted means, “We hope the wider U.S. government machinery can reign in Trump and that not everyone over there is crazy enough to change the existing order.”
for Trump, hoping he would drain the swamp and no longer do business as usual, may have sown to the wind, and the world may reap the whirlwind in the form of increased political volatility in the nations.
If Americans from Kansas and Florida are trying to figure out what Trump’s policies will be, imagine the difficulty of discerning U.S. intentions from New Delhi or Islamabad. The same could be said for those watching from Beijing and Taipei. Before taking office, and with only two short phone calls, president-elect Trump increased instability in two key regions of the world. Make no mistake: the election of Trump fits precisely into an increasing global disorder that is key to our pathway to the end as God creates the conditions required for Matthew 24 and Luke 21 to be fulfilled. Those who voted for him, hoping he would drain the swamp and no longer do business as usual in America, may have sown to the wind, and the world may reap the whirlwind in the form of increased political volatility in the nations.
The Beginning of Birth Pains
Jesus said that when these events begin to occur, “All these are the beginning of birth pains” (Matt 24:8), a simple analogy with several meanings. First, the metaphor of giving birth indicates that disaster comes in increasing pulsations of frequency and intensity. Just as contractions get more painful, the conditions in the nations will continue to unravel, and the speed and the negative impact of the events will increase. Birth pains are very descriptive of the international environment at the time of the End; crises in the nations are ramping up and will intensify.
Secondly, the metaphor of birth pains tells us that there is no reverse gear. Conditions in the nations will intensify, not trail off. No expectant mother can suddenly change her mind and decide she doesn’t want to have the baby. A process has begun that cannot be reversed; it must continue until birthing. There are no political solutions to the crises because we are in a linear process leading to the terminal event of the coming of the Lord, not an economic or political cycle. Trump may enact new policies, and the U.S. economy may be in an upsurge, but these events will not fix the conditions that take us to the End of Time. The earth is convulsing, and nothing stops birth pains except delivery.
Finally, the birth pains analogy points us to a correct spiritual focus. No family glorifies the hours spent in labor or how intense the contractions. Their attention is on the new arrival. The pains and contractions are real, but they are forgotten by the joy of birth and the wonder of new life. In the nations there is perplexity, anxiety, fear of the future and men fainting from terror, but not for us. We are eagerly looking forward to a New Day and we have clear instructions for how to respond in the time of crises: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). Birth pains – crisis in the nations – means redemption!
Our Posture: Stand Up and Lift Up Your Heads
Jesus said, “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26). The idea of fainting from terror and being filled with apprehension indicate being so disheartened, afraid and discouraged that men give up. Things will continue to devolve, whether it is the economy, political turmoil or natural disasters. The roaring of the sea indicates no basis of stability.
Believers and unbelievers alike are living in the same conditions, but we are commanded to “stand up and lift up our heads” because the crises are moving us towards redemption. The command to “stand up and lift up your heads” contains language that means to elevate our gaze from off the earth and into the heavens. The word meanings also indicate being elated at a joyous expectation. We are “looking up” at the Divine purpose behind the crises and therefore we are filled with joy and hope. God has made everything beautiful in its time; it is a time of war and not peace in the nations; a time to tear down Babylon and not build it up (Ecc 3:1-11).
Clearly we must be connected to another source of stability while all around us instability causes men’s hearts to fail for fear. The following table indicates two different responses to the events of our day:
We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:19-20).
Our faith is anchored to the holy of holies; therefore, it doesn’t matter how rough the seas get in the days to come. That realm is invisible, but it is secure; the throne of God does not shake when the heavens are being shaken. Our faith is “firm;” the Greek word is bebaios, meaning to be very stable like a piece of furniture with a broad, strong base that cannot be overturned. The word pertains to that which is known with certainty that forms the basis of our faith, and that is how it is meant by Peter: “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure [bebaios]. For if you do these things, you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). The nations are perplexed, but we are sure.
“Secure” is the Greek word asfalee and it means that which cannot be shaken, and to be secure against all attempts to break the hold. The word is the opposite of failure; so to be secure is to be safeguarded from attack and lapses in faith. Paul told the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard [asfalee] for you” (Phil 3:1). Apostolic instruction and encouragement releases to the Church a faith which makes us immune; our faith is safeguarded because it is attached to the Eternal Kingdom of God, and it is fostered and reinforced by apostolic leadership. What an important time to be connected!
In 2017, instability will increase. Chinese and Russian hegemony will flex itself as Trump leads America in a period of decline, almost guaranteeing overreach. Terrorism will intensify, as will natural disasters. But in a day of crisis and tempest raging across the seas of humanity, we are unmoved because we are certain of the purposes of God, and we will not fail.