Understanding the Times

About one month ago I presented this message in Wascana Fellowship, but did not have the time to post it (as with so many lately). I will try to post a few others from previous months as I have time and I find the notes.

A pastor I knew once referred to a particularly wise group of people mentioned in the Bible as an example for those of us who wish to reach the world with the good news about Jesus Christ. These were people who knew it was time for the entire nation of Israel to appoint David as their king in place of the line of King Saul. [2 Samuel 23-32]

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the LORD had said:… men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do–200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command;

The pastor went on to encourage us to understand the society around us in order to figure out ways to coherently teach about salvation in Jesus Christ. In theory, once we understand the world around us, we will know what to do.

I’m not necessarily convinced that knowing the world or society around us will automatically lead to solving an unwillingness to hear about Jesus and salvation. Nor am I convinced that reaching out in “culturally relevant” ways, as practiced by the North American church, will bring people to a firm faith in Jesus.

The lack of success of the church led by the pastor above in keeping people attending, let alone persuading new people to become active long-term members, suggests either a lack of understanding of society or a flaw in the theory.

For example, as much as the Apostle Paul’s message to the Athenian council is looked upon as an example to follow, Paul’s disgusted flight from the city and lack of success (very few conversions) speak volumes about the strategy. His original strategy of seeking Jewish proselytes worked much better.

This is not to say that “understanding the times” is unhelpful or useless to Christians. There are patterns in the life of a nation, for instance, that may provide clues as to whether a massive revival of Christian churches is likely in Canada.

I doubt that the present moment is one of times. That could change, however. There are forces that are passing under the radar of most of us that are beginning to change our social structure. These changes may eventually lead to times ripe for a return to hope in Jesus Christ, though not in a way we might expect.

First, I’ll talk about the present. My sense is that the current mood of our society is a hedonism that is unwilling to take the time or make the effort to think through the consequences of our current consumptive obsessiveness. There is nothing new about this assessment. Many have made it before me. Churches are responding to this hedonism. Some responses even seem to be working…for now.

Making the church appealing to consumers, as many currently “successful” churches are doing, simply reinforces the problem. Stress and burnout will follow the leadership of these churches as they seek to stay at the crest of the cultural wave. The soil of our culture is full of rocks that stunt growth and thorns that will choke out all but the most devoted followers of Jesus.

There are far too many distractions in our society to allow for measured thought about the meaning of life and whether there is anything beyond. Our ever-so-scientific outlook on life drowns out notions of the mystery of life or of spiritual matters. These trends are also well-known – especially by parents who are dismayed at the forces arrayed against installing Christian values in their children.

Our society is quickly losing any awareness of a need for God.

Not surprisingly, God is aware of this aspect of human nature.Even as far back as when he was leading his people Israel into the Promised Land, he warned them,

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deut. 8:10-14)

He is not surprised when a nation that once considered itself “Christian” begins to turn its back on him in the wake of prosperity. The pattern goes all the way back to God’s chosen people, the Hebrews (of whom we only recognize the Jewish people today). It happened many times in Israel’s history, as chronicled in the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the Bible.

There are actually three more parts to the pattern of turning away from, then (possibly) returning to God.It is the next part of the pattern that is of interest at this point in our country, and perhaps even the rest of Western civilization.

The next part of the pattern is an increasing oppression of the population, beginning with the poor and disadvantaged.

This stage begins with an internal rot in the morals of the leaders of society, who begin to prey upon those less able to defend themselves. This establishes a downward spiral that, left unchecked, leads to the destruction of a society.

Later symptoms include a selling-out of local and national interests in the pursuit of personal wealth by a power elite. This often leads to increasing foreign ownership of national treasures and wealth-generating enterprises. It also leads to increasing economic and military vulnerability of the society in question.

One thing I have noticed in studying the Bible is that God often waits for a specific kind of response from a nation that has once honoured him. A prototype to that kind of response can be found in the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God explains to Moses why he is moving to their assistance at this particular time. Then God says,

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:6-10)

While this is not necessarily a case of a people moving away from worship of God, notice that God intervenes at a certain point when the oppression becomes so great that the oppressed cry out to God about their suffering. It seems that when a certain level of suffering from oppression is reached, God intervenes on behalf of the oppressed.

I hope to review some of the results of God’s intervention in Biblical history in a later post, but one need only read the book of Judges to get an idea of the ups and downs of Israel’s relationship with God and the kinds of intervention possible.

While our current culture’s massive hedonism does not lend itself to a felt need for God, there may be forces at work behind the scenes that will change our perception of self-sufficiency. There are trends in our society that lead me to believe that large scale oppression will become the norm in the near future.

How Oppression Begins

There are many ways to create ideal conditions for oppressing large populations (though not an exhaustive list):

  • Lure people into cities with promise of high-paying jobs
  • Make it impossible to go back to the rural way of life
  • Keep changing technology for constant costly upgrading
  • Make living conditions in cities increasingly unaffordable
  • Discourage self-sustaining small-scale agriculture and gardening (such as by selling only patented seed)
  • Allow the rich to control vital resources such as water for extortionate gain
  • Increase credit limits to unsustainable levels
  • Devalue currencies with inflation to prevent savings from meaningfully accumulating Enforce servitude as condition of paying off debt
  • Keep people dependent on government support through tax incentives or welfare
  • Control wages by keeping unemployment high, ensuring a mobile (rootless) workforce
  • Decrease job security, forcing workers to accept poor working conditions and wages
  • Increase generalized fear of enemy nations or terrorist organizations, allowing governments to increase reduce freedoms
  • Keep increasing taxes while reducing social safety net programs

Canada is not Israel, so I am not predicting that Canadians will be forced out of the country because we have forgotten God.

What I am saying is that forgetting God will allow Canadians to sink into increasingly short-sighted behaviours that will result in various forms of entrapment, leading to being dominated by the powerful. Canadians will eventually (if not sooner) find themselves abused by governments and corporations that are increasingly controlled by psychopaths intent on gaining power and influence.

With technologies currently available, it may take less time than you might think. The Apostle John, writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, gave a chilling view of the future from a vision he received while on a Roman prison island.

Revelation 13:11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.13 And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.14 Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18 This calls for wisdom.42 If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

This “beast,” a symbolic name for the ancient Roman Empire, was the main oppressor of both Jews and Christians in the time John wrote the letter to seven churches, now called the book of Revelation. While the “beast” referred to a specific religio-political entity of the time, later readers can see parallels in later despotic regimes that attempt to control the lives and minds of their subjects.

Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and the rest are all manifestations of the same lust for power that seeks to dominate everyone around for its own gain. Money, goods and prestige flow upward in the pyramid of power, while control and manipulation flow downward. The lowest levels of the pyramid gain the least and pay the most.

When an entire people strays from the one true God they open themselves up to falling into a trap of their own devising. The lust for ease and pleasure ends up in chains of pain and oppression.

My sense is this: once the full extent of oppression and powerlessness has been reached and becomes blatantly obvious to most, there will be a better receptivity to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. That is good news for those who long to reach the multitudes for Jesus Christ.

Here is the bad news: There will also be intensified efforts to eradicate the preaching of the gospel because of its tendency to undermine the fear and “worship” of the powers-that-be. The prophet Daniel wrote about this phenomenon well in advance:

Daniel 11:33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.  Daniel 11:33-35 | NIV

The Apostle John also wrote about it in his vision:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. Revelation 6:9-11 | NIV

This is not my version of a doomsday prophecy, complete with a prophetic timetable. This is merely a reflection on normal human nature and the road we human beings normally take when we reject Jesus Christ as Lord.

Rejecting the true God and his Son Jesus Christ leads to increasingly dangerous behaviours that lead to self-entrapment, which leads to vulnerability to powerful interests bent on controlling the populace for their own gain. Some few will wake up and seek God, and will be persecuted for it by the same powerful interests, just as many Christians around the world are already experiencing at the hands of governments and radical religious groups.

At some point God will hear the cry of fear and oppression and he will intervene.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for the oppressed, but very bad news for the oppressor.


About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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