Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Perils of Prophetic Preaching | Dr. Bob Payne

Years ago J. Dwight Pentecost penned these words concerning Christ’s imminent return in the air for His saints:

…Many signs were given to the nation Israel, which would precede the second advent, so that the nation might be living in expectancy when the time of His coming should draw nigh. Although Israel could not know the day nor the hour when the Lord will come, yet they can know that their redemption draweth nigh through the fulfillment of these signs. To the church no such signs were ever given. The church was told to live in the light of the imminent coming of the Lord to translate them in His presence….

This doctrine of imminence, or “at any moment coming,” is not a new doctrine with Darby, as is sometimes charged….Such a belief in imminency marked the premillennialism of the early church fathers as well as the writers of the New Testament.[1]

Those of us who believe in a literal interpretation of the Word of God can add a hearty “amen” to the preceding words. Nevertheless, our concern is aroused as we observe some very disturbing modern trends in prophetic preaching. Many evangelists, Bible teachers, and pastors have traded in sound hermeneutics with its doctrine of imminency for an emotional, sensational, popular approach to prophetic preaching. With this style of preaching the newspaper becomes more important than the Bible, and prophetic scriptures are twisted and reshaped to fit into the mold of current events.

In this doctrinally confused generation we need to return to literal hermeneutics and a Bible-centered style of prophetic preaching. May those of us who are dedicated to “rightly dividing the word of truth” avoid the following perils of modern prophetic preaching:


Some preachers would never be bold enough to predict an exact date for the rapture of the church, but they come dangerously close:

…The magnetic polar reversal, predicted by computer model for 2012 is gaining more attention since its likelihood was first announced. Having moved several hundred miles across Canada the Magnetic North Pole is currently headed for Siberia. While the effects of a Magnetic Polar Reversal have never been observed by mankind, it has apparently happened in the distant past. What’s unique this time is that the Sun is due for a polar reversal at the same time. I’ve speculated that the effects of the polar reversal could fulfill Revelation 6 and if the projected time of 2012 is correct, it fits nicely into the End Times prophecy window we opened above.[2]

No doubt, language like this is sensational and exciting, but is it biblically accurate?[3] Does it reflect a sound biblical understanding of the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return?

Paul wrote to Titus: “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” We see here that Paul and the saints of his day were looking for Christ’s coming in the air. They believed His coming to be at any moment. The doctrine of imminency does not teach us that Christ must come by 2012 (although I pray that He does!), nor does it even teach us that Christ must come soon. What it does teach us is that Christ could come at any moment, therefore we always need to be ready (1 Jn. 3:3).


Those who preach the message of “pop eschatology” frequently pull passages out of context from the Olivet Discourse (which deal with the time preceding the Millennium, not the rapture) and distort them in such a way as to make current events fulfill them. Once again, this violates the biblical doctrine of imminency and distorts the meaning of the scriptures.

Some years ago, I recall a Bible teacher saying that the increase in heart disease that he saw in our country was a fulfillment of the prophecy that we see in Luke 21:26 (“men’s hearts failing them for fear”), and a sign that Jesus’ coming was very soon!

Recently I read an article on the internet by an author who used the same faulty hermeneutic. After listing various “signs” from the Olivet Discourse that “prove” that Jesus’ coming must be soon, he writes in conclusion:

As you know most of the signs in the Olivet Discourse are progressive and all are described as happening well before the end. Their main interest to us is found in the phrase “beginning of birth pangs.” Natural disasters, the tendency toward war as a tool of diplomacy, famine amidst plenty (35,000 children die each day of starvation and related diseases) and pestilence are described as being common to the era but increasing in frequency and intensity as the end approaches. This was certainly the case in 2005 and is an indicator of how close we are to the end.[4]

I still wonder about one advertisement that I saw for a video about prophecy concerning Jerusalem. I’m not sure what proof text the author would use to defend this statement: “…and even see how the first moon landing fit into Bible prophecy about Jerusalem!”[5] May God help us to avoid this kind of poor theology and careless hermeneutics!


We live in an age where people read more novels about prophecy than they read the actual prophecy. Moreover, American Christian culture is enthralled by the speculation that they see in these novels. The official “Left Behind” website now lists 12 novels in the “Left Behind” series (from which came multiple movies), as well as “Left Behind” video and PC games, and many other “Left Behind” products. As long as there is money to be made, this “Left Behind” speculation craze is likely to continue for some time.

Some preachers of the Word of God have latched on to this speculation obsession. No longer is the Bible at the hub of their prophetic preaching. Now, speculation over who the Antichrist might be, or what part terrorism might play in prophecy takes center stage.

There are indeed some dangers in prophetic speculation:

  1. Some speculation violates the normal, literal sense of the biblical text.
  2. Some speculation gives everything in prophecy a natural explanation and so removes the supernatural element (e.g. the creatures of Rev. 9 are helicopters).
  3. Some speculation partakes of urban legends (e.g. there is a computer in Europe called “the Beast”).
  4. An over-emphasis on speculation focuses on constantly changing current events and distracts from the exposition of the unchanging Word of God. Also, becoming fixated on current events leads to disappointment, discouragement, and doubt when the promise of a soon return (instead of an imminent return) does not come to pass.
  5. An over-emphasis on speculation leads to a pre-occupation with what might happen than with the purpose for which a prophecy was written. This may very well lead a person to read biblical prophecy the same way that he would read a cheap science fiction novel.

Although some minor speculation concerning what a particular prophecy might be referring to is inevitable, any type of speculation must be kept in perspective. In prophetic preaching speculation must be kept well in the background; the Word must be at the forefront. Moreover, speculation is speculation. It must not be given authority on par with the Word of God.


Prophetic preaching must remain focused on a literal interpretation of the Word of God, and the any-moment return of the Lord Jesus Christ for His church. The preacher must be cautious not to predict the time of the coming of Christ, nor twist the scriptures in an effort to show that His coming is near. Furthermore, those who handle the Word of God must be extremely careful not to over-emphasize prophetic speculation. In this day of doctrinal drift and sensationalized ministry, prophetic preaching must be anchored in the Word of God.

[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), pp. 202-203

[2] Jack Kelly, “Seven Major Prophetic Signs of the Second Coming,” from

[3] Or scientifically accurate for that matter. Remember the “prophetically significant” planet alignment of the 1980’s?

[4] Ibid.

[5] Perhaps Today, pdf-formatted, web version (Sept.-Oct. 2006), p. 8

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