Abraham has the unique distinction in Scripture of being referred to as the “friend of God” (James 2:23). This was no empty title. Rather, it reflected the reality of a life lived in communion with God. Seldom was that communion so clearly expressed as when God, anticipating the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, revealed His purpose to Abraham, asking, “Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?” (Gen 18:17).
Though Abraham’s description is unique, his standing is not. It is a remarkable fact that we have, by grace, become friends of God, and that we too have been taken into His confidence. In the upper room, the Lord told His disciples of their new relationship to Himself and with God: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:15). God’s ways are unsearchable, His judgments past finding out. But, in gracious condescension He deigns to open His purposes to our gaze.
Viewed in this context, prophetic Scripture is revealed as one of the chief glories of God’s people. It reveals something of His purpose for the Universe, and the ways in which this purpose will be realized. God allows us to live in a present that is enlightened by the future with an ennobling and energizing appreciation of the great goal towards which His purposes ineluctably work.
In light of this, it is both strange and sad that the study of prophecy has, throughout the history of the Church, been relegated to the periphery, discouraged by those in authority, and denigrated as the occupation of the mentally – as well as spiritually – unbalanced. The often-quoted quip, that “the study of Revelation either finds a man mad, or leaves him so” (John Calvin), aptly sums up the prevailing attitude to prophetic study.
It cannot be denied that this attitude was not without some justification. Radical groups throughout the centuries justified their extreme practices by a reading of prophecy that placed them in the last days. A sorry history of attempts to set the date of Christ’s return does little to rehabilitate the caricature of the student of prophecy as, at best, eccentric, and, at worst, downright dangerous.
This history helps to explain – though it cannot excuse – the neglect of prophecy. By the end of the fourth century AD, amillennialism had displaced premillennialism as the predominant way of understanding prophecy. Broadly speaking, amillennialists taught that Israel had been replaced by the Church, which enjoys a spiritual fulfillment of the promises originally given to Israel. They denied the possibility of a literal millennium, arguing instead that Christendom was already experiencing a spiritual millennium. The Reformers generally accepted the outlines of the amillennial scheme, and, in the aftermath of violent social upheaval caused by millennial teaching, vigorously opposed the idea of a literal reign of Christ of 1000 years.
Throughout the seventeenth century, though, this began to change. The resistance to allegorical readings of Scripture that was at the heart of the Reformation resulted in a grammatical-historical interpretation which insisted that the Bible meant what it said. This made a spiritualized amillennial reading difficult to sustain. These were also times of remarkable progress in almost every field of human endeavor. The world seemed to be becoming a better place. This spirit of optimism was reflected theologically in postmillennialism. This view suggests that the spread of the gospel, with its beneficial effects on all levels of human society, would usher in an idyllic period of 1000 years at the end of which Christ would return. Postmillennialism depicted human history and contemporary society in a positive light. It became widely held among evangelicals and may well have helped to foster their enthusiasm for spreading the gospel at home and abroad.
At the end of the eighteenth century, though, this optimism was becoming difficult to sustain. Progress in the scientific seemed to be leading man away from, and not toward, God. Atheistic rationalism blossomed and revolutions in France, Ireland, and America seemed to prefigure a wider descent into social anarchy. These circumstances encouraged believers to look again at Scripture and to return to the premillennialism that had been little-regarded since the early centuries of the Church. Premillennialists expected that “evil men and seducers” would, indeed “wax worse and worse” (2Tim 3:13). Society was on a downward slope and its decline would only be arrested and reversed by the return of Christ Who would put down rebellion and establish His righteous kingdom.
In this context, a variety of premillennialism interpretations emerged. Most students of prophecy adopted a historicist premillennialism, which understood the book of Revelation to refer to past events. The crucial insight that it referred to future events we owe to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).
Darby was born into a wealthy Irish family. He was an extraordinary man with a forceful personality and seemingly inexhaustible energy. Although his father intended him to be a lawyer, Darby chose to become a clergyman in the established Church of Ireland, ministering to poor parishioners in Co. Wicklow. He adopted an ascetic lifestyle and, by his own admission, was a high churchman, who thought that salvation was only to be found within the established Episcopal Church.
This changed in 1827 when Darby, immobilized by a serious riding accident, devoted his convalescence to the study of Scripture. His conversion, which he described as his “deliverance from bondage,” can be traced to this period. While his understanding of prophecy (and his views on the nature of the Church, which fall outside the scope of this article) developed over time, it is probable that it, too, had its roots in this time of meditation and Bible study.
Darby’s interpretation of prophecy had a number of important features. Like many evangelicals of the time, he was convinced that God still had a purpose for Israel, and that the promises made to the nation would still be fulfilled. This led him to endorse a strongly literal understanding of Scripture which insisted that the term “Israel” always referred to the nation, and never meant the Church. This principle also meant that he understood the book of Revelation to be a literal account of events that were still to take place and not a coded account of the history of the Church. (This view is usually called futurist premillennialism.)
Like many other earlier scholars, Darby identified a number of distinct periods in human history, marked by the different ways in which God dealt with man. These “dispensations” were far from being the most distinctive element of Darby’s system, but they gave it the name – dispensationalism – by which it is most commonly known.
The most distinctive feature of Darby’s interpretation was related to Christ’s return. Other premillennialists at the time saw this as a single event in which Christ returned to earth, after the tribulation, to establish His kingdom. As Darby studied the New Testament, he came to realize that it presents the return of Christ as an event in two stages. First is the Rapture, when He comes to the air to snatch away the saints, dead and living. This event is followed by the seven years of the tribulation, at the end of which Christ returns to earth in glory and with His saints to rule in righteousness for 1000 glorious years.
After his conversion, Darby’s life was devoted to preaching and teaching. He traveled widely, crisscrossing the Atlantic and working extensively in Europe. He produced a new translation of the Bible, and he oversaw the translation of the Bible into French and German. He was an indefatigable writer, producing over 40 volumes of commentary, controversy, and exhortation, as well as some of the most sublime hymns ever written. This activity meant that dispensationalism was accepted by many Christians, especially in the United States, where the Bible Conference movement and the publication, in 1907, of The Scofield Reference Bible did much to ensure its spread.
We have much cause to thank God for the ministry of J. N. Darby. His saturation in Scripture resulted in his being used to recover the Church’s delight in prophecy and to restore her expectation of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. For Darby, and for generations of believers since, that hope has glowed brightly, even as conditions round about us have grown increasingly gloomy. May we, too, be found among those who “love His appearing” (2Tim 4:8). Maranatha, even so come, Lord Jesus!