When I first started preaching over 50 years ago, I was enamored with eschatology. I read some charts that showed the rapture, the seven year tribulation, the antichrist, the revelation or Second Coming, the 1000 year reign and Final Judgment. Besides having a pastor that emphasized these positions, I think I probably read a total of three books on this matter. I thought I knew everything. I even volunteered to teach the book of Revelation at college.
My dad came to hear me preach at my little church in Palmer, Tennessee. It was a typical sermon by me on the Second Coming. Rather than get high praise from my dad, he said, ‘Son, the man you were named after, Dr. R. T. Williams used to give this advice: “Young men, stay away from the subject of prophecy and last things. Let the older preachers do that, they won’t be around to see their mistakes”.’ That word from my dad punctured my balloon, but I took his advice, especially after I studied more. When asked whether I am a pre-millennialist, a post-millennialist or an a-millennialist; or whether I believe in the pre-tribulation rapture, post-tribulation rapture or mid-tribulation rapture – or a lot of other things, I answer: I’ve been right once. In much the same way that every watch is correct twice a day, I have believed everything that is possible to believe – if only I knew when I was right, I’d stop!
My emphasis on the whole over my ministry has been soteriology. I delve into eschatology only when the text calls for it. I could not be more thrilled than if God would give me the final, absolute and infallible interpretation of Daniel, Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation. But until that day comes I have thought it more important to emphasize salvation and seeing the lost saved and nurtured than being the world’s expert on matters eschatological. I have just finished writing a book with Rabbi David Rosen, the respected orthodox Jewish rabbi of Jerusalem who is the first person to receive a papal knighthood from Pope Benedict. He is not worried about being saved or lost from the Christian point of view because he has been told that, since he is one of God’s chosen, he will get a second chance in any case should he not receive Jesus as his Messiah before the Second Coming. I regard him as being in a dangerous position; imagine telling Jews they need not worry whether they trust the blood of Jesus; they get a second chance! This to me is why soteriology is more important than eschatology.
In one of my first columns for ‘Ministries Today’ I told of my wonderful visit with Oral Roberts. He shared a vision the Lord gave him and the crux of the matter was that we should be preaching the Second Coming more and more. I have done so. So much of what Dr. Roberts shared with me has been what my matured position has led me to embrace.
But it is still more important to emphasize being saved than it is to stress who will be the antichrist; being ready for the Second Coming than knowing the details that lead up to it or follow it; being soul winners than exciting the people with matters that no two high profile preachers agree on to this day! I don’t mean to be unfair, but I should think the angels blush over an emphasis that does not vastly encourage people to look at the main reason God sent his Son into the world than the fascinating but speculative details of biblical prophecy. I also fear that the emphasis of some could be geared more to what will sell books than what edifies souls and brings honor solely to our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nobody got it right when one tried to predict the first coming of Christ. No interpreter of the prophets had it figured out how Messiah could be born in Bethlehem, brought up in Nazareth, return from Egypt or be God and man. All speculations (and there were many) were worthless. Had God wanted all to know in advance, surely at least one interpreter of the prophets would have got it right. None did. The true Messiah took all by surprise. As a result, because of preconceptions as to what he would look like and be like, the very people to whom he was promised largely missed him entirely.
I often think that it is not necessary to get the details right in advance of the Second Coming. What surely matters is whether we are ready for it. And if I understand the Scriptures, those who are not ready – whether Jew or Gentile – are eternally lost. Those who put a priority on other things, I fear, do nobody any favor.