The saints in Damascus

Here is the full text of my interview with Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post for this article – thanks to Michael for addressing this issue.  The article I mention in the interview below can be read here.

MG: Do you believe that the conflict in Syria could lead to the End Times?

JSR: Your question though about the “end times” requires some clarification.  A large body of Christians, including the apostles I believe, understand Christ’s first coming as the beginning of the “last days” or “that day” as it is anticipated in much of the Old Testament.  That means that we are now living in the “end times,” and we have been since Christ’s ministry on earth.  These last days are marked by war, conflict between the people of God and the world, as well as the engrafting of the nations (through evangelism), the proclamation of the victory of the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, and the gift of the Spirit (see Joel 2 and Acts 2 for instance).  In that sense, any national upheaval is a mark of this time of conflict and earnest anticipation of the return of Jesus.  

Getting to what I suspect is the intent of the question, however, there is nothing in the Scriptures that says that the current conflict between the west and Syria necessarily indicates an impending return of Jesus Christ, in a direct prophecy-and-fulfillment sort of way

MG: What is your opinion of the usage of Isaiah 17 as evidence?

JSR: I believe that such an interpretation as that articulated in the article commits the exegetical error of uprooting the text from its historical setting. Dr. Dyer seems to get it right in your article, I think. I understand the prophet Isaiah here as calling for repentance in the face of mounting Assyrian aggression.  All of Isaiah 7-38 is given in the context of the Assyrian expansion and the Lord’s use of the empire to judge his enemies and the unfaithful in Judah.  The list of nations in chs. 13-23 which will not escape the Lord’s judgment should remind the righteous remnant of Judah that the Lord is at work in Assyria’s successes but will also judge it for its arrogance.  Likewise, the enemies of God’s people will receive judgment as well, just as the Lord promised Abram (Gen 12:3).  As Dr. Dyer suggested, these prophecies were fulfilled in ancient times. 

Does it have meaning for us today? Absolutely, but not in a direct prophecy-fulfillment sort of way.  Rather, we see here a picture of God’s presence in the world and his hand in national affairs.  Just as Isaiah preached, we too should repent and turn to God in faith (and call for repentance in the world).  I believe this message is crucial for the church both in the West and around the world.  The Apostle Peter seems to think that mass repentance is a greater indicator of the return of Christ than any particular military conflict in our day (2 Pet 3:9).

MG: Is there other scriptural evidence that could be used for or against the idea that the Syrian conflict is connected to the End Times?

JSR: In general, it is hard to prove a negative, but I would point out that the other countries mentioned in Isaiah 13-23 clearly met their judgment during expansion of the Assyrian empire.  One of the success stories (short-lived) of this section is Cush (Isaiah 18), which seems to experience some success and proceed to send out envoys to the surrounding nations.  This occurred c. 715 B.C. when a dynasty of Cushitic origin began reigning in Egypt setting up diplomatic relations with Judah and others.  Likewise, Edom was attacked by Assyria in 703 B.C. (the long night of Isa 21:11-12), as was Jerusalem in 701 B.C. (Isaiah 22).  Why should we think that this one passage (Isaiah 17) is about a conflict that will arise not during the Assyrian expansion but over two and a half millennia later?

Secondly, the book of Isaiah has a logic to it.  It was compiled after Sennacherib was turned back from Jerusalem in 701 B.C., but the prophet leaves these early prophecies (chs. 7-39) in the book even though many of them had been fulfilled.  He does this to show that he is a true prophet whose prophecies are fulfilled before Judah’s eyes.  As a result, Judah should listen to him now as he is preaching about the coming exile at the hands of Babylon and the promised Restoration that will follow it.  This is what he means when he talks about the “former things” that he prophesied which came about (42:9; 48:3).  His audience should pay heed to what he says because his previous prophecies have already been fulfilled.

With all of that said, my heart cries out for the church in these regions where there is such upheaval and trouble today.  The message of hope from the book of Isaiah is that, even though the nations rage, God is ever in control and mindful of his people.  The people of God ought to put their trust in him as they are reminded that even the great nations of the world rise and fall at his bidding.  To quote the Apostle Paul, they can be confident that God works all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28), even if that good is not seen in full until his return. 

May God be merciful to the saints in Damascus.