THE PROPHETIC STUDENTS OF THE FIRST CENTURY
NOTWITHSTANDING the times of declension and moral decay, God has always had His seven thousand faithful servants who have never bowed the knee to Baal. The fact that a paralyzing materialism held the Sadducean section of the Jewish nation of the first century in a cold, philosophical stupor, while a dead orthodoxy on the part of the Pharasaic party devitalized its profession, there was a pious remnant who trusted God and who believed the messages of His prophets. They were in that time what in Christian circles of the present day would he called conservative, loyal believers. They accepted the Scriptures as fully inspired and studied them in order to ascertain the message which the prophets spoke.
At the proper time, according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him to the Lord. When they arrived Symeon was present. Concerning him Luke tells us that, "this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him." Concerning him Luke gives us the following account:
26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this might be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Of this man, the Holy Spirit, through Luke, tells us that he was "looking for the consolation of Israel." What is the significance of this participial phrase? In the light of the teaching of the Old Testament, it can mean only one thing; namely, that he was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah who would bring consolation and deliverance to the people of Israel. This same thought was expressed by the apostle Paul in the phrase, "the hope of Israel" (Acts 28:20). These expressions are without a doubt an echo of Isaiah's prediction concerning Messiah: "Incline your ear, and come unto me; hear, and your soul shall live: and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David. Behold, I have given him for a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander to the peoples" (Isa. 55:3,4). From this passage we see that God promised to make with Israel an everlasting covenant which would be the embodiment of the sure mercies vouchsafed to King David. The prophet personalized these mercies by showing that they were to be embodied in this Son of David, who is to be "a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander to the peoples." In view of the promises to David and the references to the same by Isaiah, good old Symeon, a student of the prophetic word, was expectantly waiting for the appearance of this one who would be a witness and a leader to the peoples.
But, one gathers from Luke's statement in the passage quoted above that Symeon was expecting in his own day and time the appearance of this one who was the hope of Israel. Why would he be setting a date and expecting the appearance of King Messiah at that time? The answer, doubtless, is this: He had read Daniel's prophecy, which was discussed in the preceding chapter. He knew that Messiah would be cut off 483 years after the issuing of the decree for the exiles to return from Babylonian captivity. The Jews had counted the years, and those in Israel who, like Symeon, believed the prophecy knew that the time was at hand for Him to appear in order to be cut off at the expiration of the 483rd year after the return from captivity. Since he was living so very close to the Lord--he was a devout man--the Spirit revealed it unto him that he should have the opportunity of seeing Messiah before his death. Thus, from the Scriptures, he learned that the time was at hand for King Messiah to be born in Bethlehem. But by the Holy Spirit the revelation was made that he personally would have an opportunity to see the Christ-child. God gives special blessings and makes certain disclosures of truth to those who are walking closely by His side and are trusting Him.
There was another outstanding person in Jerusalem who, likewise, was a student of the prophetic word. This one was Anna, a prophetess of the tribe of Asher. She was so very consecrated to the Lord that she spent her time at the sanctuary in worship and service. When Joseph and Mary brought the baby Jesus into the Temple, she came up at that very hour and gave thanks unto God "and spake of him to all them that were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38). From this quotation, we see that there were those in Israel who were "looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." This dear old saint of God was personally acquainted with those who were looking for the appearance of King Messiah. Figuratively speaking, one would say that they were upon the tiptoes of expectation, looking daily for His advent. Hence, when this aged prophetess came into the Temple at that very hour, she, by the Spirit, recognized the child Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions and spoke to those who entertained the same hope.
From the meager data that we have concerning Symeon and Anna, we see that there was a group of devout, loyal people, who knew the prophecies, who believed them, and who were in great expectation, awaiting Messiah's appearance. The basis for their hope was founded upon the revelation of Daniel 9, which gives the date for Messiah's execution. Of course, it is to be presumed that the faith and the hope of this little group of prophetic students was fired by the instructions given to them by the prophetess Anna. It is to be noted that they were expecting the Messiah and the redemption of Jerusalem, when the Holy Spirit, through Anna, made the revelation concerning the presence of the Christ-child in the Temple on this special occasion. This disclosure of truth to them was doubtless no great surprise, because they knew from the inspired record that the time was at hand for Him to appear. In our ordinary parlance today, they could have said to Anna when she made known to them by the Spirit that the baby Jesus was the Messiah: "Just as we expected."
About thirty years later, John the Baptist broke the prophetic silence that had settled down over the whole nation for practically four hundred years by crying in the wilderness, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). With such an announcement the nation was electrified and people from all parts of the country rushed out to hear him preach. The great masses of the people received baptism at his hands, being instructed that they should look to Him who was coming after John. Six months after the Baptist began his ministry, Jesus came and was baptized of John (Matt. 3:13-17). On that occasion, the Spirit like a dove descended upon Jesus, and the Father from heaven spoke saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Vast multitudes, doubtless were present on this most solemn occasion.
Again let us bear in mind that the great majority of the nation, doubtless, was not aware that they were living in prophetic times. They did not realize that it was time for the Messiah to appear. That epoch slipped upon them unawares--all because they did not know the prophetic word. In contrast with them, as we have just seen, that little group of prophetic students, who believed and who studied these predictions, knew ahead of time that they were living in momentous days and that Messiah would soon appear.
Not only from the sacred record do we learn this fact, but from an examination of the Jewish literature of the period, we see that in certain circles there was great expectation for the appearance of Messiah. This literature is known as Apocalyptic. This word literally means to uncover. Thus there was great literary activity on the part of a certain group in Israel who endeavored to awaken the nation to the seriousness of the times and to call it back to God.
In our studying this literature, we see that those who produced it, while they were aware that they were living in the very time when Messiah would appear, yet made many hasty and false deductions. Nevertheless, they were striking at the truth. They knew from the study of the prophecies that the time was at hand, but they indulged in excesses and extravagant, fantastic interpretations of certain of the prophecies.
This first century situation should teach us a serious lesson. The group which clustered around such people as Symeon and the prophetess Anna seem to have been very cautious, taking only what the Word said and refusing to indulge in extravagant, sensational, fantastic interpretations of the Scriptures. On the other hand, there was another group of prophetic students, who produced the apocalyptic of the first century and who indulged in many wild and sensational theories. Of course, there were many people then, like the masses today, who simply lived upon the fantastic and extravagant theories of sensational teachers. This group doubtless brought the study of prophecy into disrepute. It takes no wide stretch of the imagination to believe that the Sadducean, materialistic party was driven into their cold, philosophical isolation by the effervescent, sensational, prophetic teaching of those indulging in this extreme fantastic interpretation of prophecy.
The prophetic word is given to us for a light by which we are to be guided. God said what He meant and meant what He said. The Lord fulfills His prophecies as written and not as interpreted by the speculations of men. My appeal to all lovers of truth is that we avoid all striving at sensationalism and that we seek to know only what is revealed unmistakably in the Word and give that to the hungry masses. God will bless our efforts along this line.
In our discussing the prophetic students of the first century, we cannot fail to note a man who was high in the counsels of the Jewish nation, Joseph of Arimathea. Concerning him we have this statement by Luke: "And behold, a man named Joseph, who was a councillor, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their counsel and deed), a man of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews, who was looking for the kingdom of God: this man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus" (Luke 23:50-52). Since it is said of Joseph that he was a councillor, it is altogether possible that he was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Only men of the very highest type of manhood, respectability, character, and accomplishments became members of this supreme court of the Hebrew race. He was a good and a righteous man and refused to consent to the execution of Jesus. He and Nicodemus were friends and seemed to have held aloof from the plottings of the Jews against Jesus. But of Joseph it is said that he was "looking for the kingdom of God." He went about his regular duties performing his tasks honestly and conscientiously before God. At the same time he had an unfaltering, unswerving faith in the establishment of the kingdom of God. Why did he feel this way? Evidently, he was a student of the prophetic word, believing the Scriptures and accepting the preaching both of John the Baptist and of Jesus.
These prophetic students believed that the kingdom of God would be established in their day and time. Such is the inference that is to be drawn from the word rendered "looking for" in the phrase "looking for the kingdom of God." John the Baptist said that the time was fulfilled and that the kingdom of God was at hand. It had drawn near. What is meant here by "the kingdom of God is at hand"? Evidently that which is set forth in the parables of the kingdom recorded in Matthew 13; Mark 4; and Luke 8. Matthew, in his record, used the phrase "kingdom of heaven," whereas Mark and Luke in recounting the same parables used the term "kingdom of God." Thus it is certain from this fact that these two expressions have the same significance in these parables. Doubtless, Matthew used his expression "kingdom of heaven," through respect to the Jewish peculiar ideas and aversion to using the sacred and memorial name of God, substituting in its place expressions like "the heavens," or "the reign of the heavens." That which is called the kingdom of heaven by Matthew and the kingdom of God by Mark and Luke is obviously what we speak of as Christendom, which historically began with the preaching of the Lord Jesus and the apostles, has continued through this Christian dispensation, and will remain until the Lord Jesus comes for His saints at the time of the Rapture of the church before the Tribulation. The kingdom of heaven did come close at hand and was established on Pentecost. Peoples in reality enter this by the new birth only (John 3:1-8).
As was indicated in these parables, soon there was injected into Christianity and its teachings corruption--the three measures of meal became entirely leaven. Nevertheless, it was still the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven in the broad sense as used by Jesus on this occasion.
At the end of this age, as we learn from the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50), all evil and things that offend will be cast out of this kingdom. Only the pure and righteous will survive and enter into the glorious millennial reign of our Lord.