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Christian Biblical Studies
THE COMING NIGHT
By A. Prentice
Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK edition of 1984
Night is coming, when no-one can work.
– John 9: 4 –
OBSERVING THE MAN blind from birth, Jesusʼ disciples mooted the possibility that his handicap was the result of parental sin: ʻwho sinned, this man or his parents?ʼ (John 9: 1). The notion that one generation might suffer as a consequence of the misdeeds of a previous one was taught in the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been accepted by them as universal fact. In this instance Jesus corrected their assumption: ʻNeither this man nor his parents sinned,ʼ He said, ʻbut this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his lifeʼ (9: 3).
Jesusʼ assertion does not refute the ʻsour grapesʼ principle of Jer. 31: 29, 30 that ʻthe fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edgeʼ (compare Ezek. 18: 2-4). Indeed, the New Testament positively affirms it. The notion of inherited sin and its dire physical consequences is the only way to understand the process of salvation. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Rom. 5: 19:
For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many will be made righteous.
Nonetheless, as far as Jesus was concerned, the blind man of John 9 had been placed in His path – by Providence or chance – so that the man might be given sight, thereby providing an object lesson of Godʼs power. The man's healing lay not merely in his light receptors being switched on. It would have been necessary – the man never having seen anything before – for modifications to be made to his visual cortex and other parts of his brain, enabling him to interpret what his new eyes saw, without his being driven mad from a confusion of light and imagery.
This miracle involved an odd, two-stage process: Jesus applied a paste of His own spit and earth to the man's eyes and told him to wash it off in the Pool of Siloam, a locale legendary in Israel for its healing properties. While he was away, Jesus and the disciples left. But the miracle had proved controversial and the once-blind man was hauled before incredulous and irritated religious officers and quizzed by them. The account of the interrogation is found in John 9: 13-34.
Watch Your Step
The last of Jesusʼ miracles recorded in John's gospel is that of the raising of Lazarus (chapter 11). He had received word from Bethany that his friend Lazarus was gravely ill. He remained where He was for two days before setting off for the village, knowing that Lazarus was already dead (ʻasleepʼ; vs. 11-14). The disciples tried to discourage Jesus from travelling into territory hostile to His preaching (John 11: 8): ʻBut Rabbi, . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?ʼ
Jesusʼ response (v. 9) supplies the basic premise of this article:
Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.
In a world without effective artificial illumination, travel by night has always been inconvenient and sometimes hazardous. In crossing rough or unfamiliar terrain one can trip and fall. Everybody knows this. Jesus was not, therefore, merely reiterating the obvious; such a trivial observation would have been at odds with the gravity of His mission. For as He advanced into enemy territory, Jesus ventured toward the finale of His mission and His life – the ultimate sacrifice which would determine the eternal future of humanity.
On one occasion early on in His ministry, Jesusʼ brothers had requested that he travel with them up to Jerusalem for the yearly Feast of Tabernacles (John 7: 5, 6). He declined, saying
The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. . . . You go to the Feast. I am not yet going up to this Feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.
After they had left, he remained at home a little while, then set off by Himself, incognito. Jesusʼ expression that the ʻright time has not yet comeʼ, and His sharply contrasting assertion to His family that ʻfor you any time is rightʼ, reveals a great deal about Jesusʼ understanding of the end in view. He refers to the closing scenes of His life as the ʻappointed timeʼ (Matt. 26: 18). It all came down to a matter of time and place – and the unerring hand of divine Providence.
The darkest hour tolled at Gethsemane, when in bloody sweat He reconciled His mind to the awful inevitability of crucifixion. He had come to the end of the appointed day and the gathering shadows would congeal into blackest night as the devils wreaked their fury on Him and pinned Him to a cross. The heavens cried and turned midnight black when He drew His final breath and whispered ʻit is finishedʼ.
The Gathering Clouds
For the disciples left behind and the long gallery of saints who came after, dismal nights would follow, as they hid from their persecutors – the Neros and the Diocletians and an infamous parade of tormentors across the bleak centuries. But they also worked when they could, in those intermittent periods of day, when a sunny Providence highlighted the way. And so Christ's Church grew, though it would always be a little flock and always in danger.
After John – the last of the Apostles – had died, disagreements over the fundamentals of the faith had given rise to sectarian factions, and like wolves amongst the flock these corrupted the faith, and turned men's heads to matters of authority and supremacy. The darkness deepened as an aggressive orthodoxy trampled the roots of apostolic faith and Christian freedom. Not until the Reformation of the sixteenth century were some of the old truths restored, like dappled light flickering through the shadows. Creeds multiplied, flourished, split and – as Jesus had predicted – persecuted their brethren.
But denominationalism was not wholly a curse, for it prevented any one system from gaining a monopoly over the faith. Truths were now spread across all denominations, and within the interstices the faithful found opportunities to preach and teach in the varying chinks of light. And so the saints of God grew in number and the Gospel Age advanced toward its close.
Freedom, Tolerance and Christianity
The genius of democracy is its capacity to maintain a tension between essential personal and social freedoms – rights to free speech, press, religion, privacy, etc. – and the necessary curtailment of activities which may undermine or threaten civic order or the security of the state – crime against persons and institutions, terrorism, etc. Many of our personal and legal freedoms have been hard won, and many of them were hammered out on the anvil of Christianity.
A democratic environment is necessary for Christianity itself to function. Both need voluntary, willing assent to remain healthy, for coercion kills their spirit. And while it would be a gross exaggeration to say that either democracy or Christianity is dead in Britain, there are worrying trends.
The proclivity of the human mind – absent unselfish good will – is to concentrate power and authority into a single mechanism. This is true of political empires, governments and corporate monopolies. Such entities seek to eliminate the ʻcompetitionʼ – whether it be an uprising of tribal chieftains or, in the business world, feisty independent retailers. ʻGrowth through acquisitionʼ is both an old and a modern mantra.
There are monopolies of ideas, too. Religion in general and Christian culture in particular are regarded by a growing cadre of secular thinkers as dead weights on intellectual and moral freedoms. Such a hostile attitude coincides with the rise of various branches of philosophy, science and economics – all perfectly respectable in their own right, but which, meeting at the junction of biblical ignorance and dissolution of social mores, combine to undermine the traditional underpinnings of civilised society and congeal into a profane orthodoxy, with autocratic tendencies.
Yes, But . . .
Of course, the free dissemination of ideas is necessary to a thriving democracy. Indeed, it's also essential to Christian philosophy. The suppression of debate among Christians or the cruel persecution of dissenters as in times past would be contrary to a godly spirit of inquiry. Since it is not possible in this life to come to a perfect knowledge of truth – religious or otherwise – it is necessary that on some things one agrees to differ.
Nonetheless, there is now a marked tendency by proponents to portray destructive cultural trends as logical developments or morally good, leaving little room for dissent by those who see things differently. So one may be regarded as ill-educated or stupid for disagreeing with the doctrine of human evolution. Or shouted down (or prosecuted) for voicing disapproval of single-sex ʻmarriageʼ, an unprecedented social experiment now under way across much of the Western world.
The observation by Edmund Burke, though written in a different context, is apropos of our own society in which
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of her naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
Freedom To Preach And Reprove
The two principal duties of the saints throughout Gospel-Age history have been the preaching of the Gospel and reproving of the world for its unrighteousness. These duties remain. In earlier periods of history such activities have led to the dungeon or the chopping block. We wouldn't anticipate such crude responses today. Nonetheless, we may yet be faced with the choice of speaking out and being prosecuted, or of staying quiet and keeping our faith to ourselves.
Relatively few evangelists now distribute tracts or preach on street corners, and of those who do some will face detention or hasty arrest for these time-honoured activities. In a digital society most Christians now carry on this work through newsletters, websites, blogs or other electronic means – avenues which may also attract legal sanctions.
Twilight And The Oncoming Horizon
It has been often predicted by Christian groups that there will come a period so dark and ignorant regarding faith in Christ that no one can work – that is, preach the Gospel. But predictions are slippery things, and don't always co-operate with the chronology of choice. Deadlines come and go, and still the social order ticks on. This world's underpinnings are not as fragile as they appear to be, and reading trends is a hit-and-miss enterprise. We are unlikely to know when and precisely how this social order will come to a grinding halt. That it will we need not doubt, for biblical Prophecy assures us it is so.
Whether we toil alone or belong to a Christian community, we are chain-linked to Christians of past ages and are similarly obliged to bear witness to Christ as Saviour and King. But we should do this intelligently and purposefully, despite our private fear of insults or retribution. We must work while there is daylight, before night comes on. If and when we reach this darkest point of history (perhaps not in one's lifetime), we can take heart that Christ's Kingdom of peace and the restoration of truth in the earth is close by.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pet. 1: 19)
Copyright November 2013 by ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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