How unlikely to be fulfilled were Joseph’s dreams! He had seen, first of all, his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his. Not surprisingly, his brothers rejected the obvious interpretation. “Shall thou indeed reign over us?” they asked in derision. Then, when Joseph saw in a further dream the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing down to him, even his father rebuked him with the question: “Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down themselves to thee to the earth?” It seemed impossible that these dreams were anything but normal – and therefore had no significance. Yet Joseph must have known that they contained a revelation from heaven. And Jacob too could not convince himself that it was otherwise; we are told that he “observed the saying”.
The unlikely came to pass. God, who had given the revelation, ordered His providence so that Joseph and his brothers were brought into situations where repeatedly they bowed down before him, bestowing on him all the respect that it was possible for them to give. What was in effect a prophecy from God, was fulfilled, in spite of seeming impossibilities. So it has been throughout the whole sweep of biblical history. How unlikely that Hezekiah and his people would be delivered from the besieging Assyrians around the walls of Jerusalem! How unlikely that the Jews would be established in their own land again after they were swept into captivity in Babylon! But these were the subjects of divine prediction, and seeming impossibilities could not stand in the way of their fulfilment. The God who made these predictions is the God who orders providence. And nothing is too hard for Him. Which of course was Jeremiah’s consolation in these fearfully difficult circumstances when the Chaldeans were on the verge of overwhelming the city of the great King, so dear to the prophet as the place where that King was worshipped according to His appointment.
Today we look around us and, at least in the West, we seem to see nothing but spiritual decline. If the views of the recently-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury are anything to go by, the Church of England is, according to any measure of its spiritual strength, in terminal decline. An academic historian has entitled a recent work, The Death of Christian Britain – although his argument is not as dramatic as his title. But if present trends continue, the spiritual outlook, for Britain at least, is ominous.
Yet, however low the Lord may permit spiritual conditions to become in this country or elsewhere, biblical prophecy assures us that the Church of God will never die out, but rather that it is yet to flourish on a scale that the world has never seen. Among the many passages of Scripture which might be quoted, we may note the promise that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9). Robert Gordon, in a chapter on the conquest of Jericho (1), speaks of that conquest as a type, or foreshadowing, of “the spiritual conquests of the Messiah by the preaching of the everlasting gospel. That gospel has compassed, or will yet be made to compass, the nations of the earth, as the ark of the covenant of the Lord compassed the walls of Jericho.” And in an earlier chapter Gordon demonstrates that the ark of the covenant was a type of Christ Himself.
“How long it may be” Gordon continued, “before this is accomplished, we know not. But the time is as certainly determined as were the seven days for the compassing of Jericho; and should any one be disposed to ask why that time has been placed at such a distance, we should say in reply, For the same reason that seven days were employed for a work which, to divine power, it had been equally easy to accomplish in one – even because so it seemed good in His sight. But the time is fixed; and when the gospel has accomplished its course, when it has been preached to every creature under heaven, and the divine purposes have been fulfilled, its triumph will be as complete as that by which it is typified in the passage before us, in the overthrow of the kingdom of darkness, the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan. To the ungodly and unbelieving, the idea of subjugating the world, by the preaching of the cross of Christ, and effecting a great moral revolution in the whole family of the human race may appear as extravagant as the conduct of Israel might have appeared to the men of Jericho. And we know, in fact, that it does so appear; for Christ crucified was from the beginning to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.
“But the preaching of the cross is, nevertheless, the power of God, and the wisdom of God. It is the appointed ordinance of Him who was from the beginning the Captain of the Lord’s host, and is still the Captain of His people’s salvation. He has already manifested His sovereignty by giving power and efficacy to His own ordinance in the subjugation of multitudes to His holy and spiritual government. And on the strength of His own assurance as the faithful and true Witness, His people are taught to look forward to a still more glorious triumph. Nor have there been wanting, from time to time, some more striking manifestations of His power accompanying the proclamation of His truth, whereby to strengthen the faith and encourage the hope of His people regarding the great triumph typified in the passage we are considering. It has been said of the great Reformation, in the accomplishment of which Luther, himself a Popish monk, was the chief instrument: ‘The Church of Rome is seen under Pope Leo X in all its strength and glory. A monk speaks, and in half of Europe this power and glory crumble into dust.’ And what did the then obscure monk speak? He gave forth one simple but most precious truth, the free remission of sin through the blood of the cross, justification by faith in Christ alone; or, as it is expressed in that text which had been borne in with divine power on his own soul: ‘The just shall live by faith’.
“The remark which I have quoted was probably made without any reference to the transaction which we have been considering. But we can hardly fail, with this passage before us, to see in that remark a striking illustration of the typical prediction it contains of the future triumphs of the gospel. Thus . . . Christ has been pleased to give occasional manifestations of His divine power in a peculiar manner for strengthening the faith of His people, showing them that by apparently still weaker means than in the case of Jericho, He can achieve victories infinitely more momentous. And when His time is come, when the perfect period of seven days has run its course – perfect, because appointed by His unerring wisdom – then His divine power will go forth in the word of the everlasting gospel, overthrowing the walls of the mystical Babylon, and laying desolate all the strongholds of the wicked one; and ‘great voices’ shall be heard in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever’.
“Such being the provision which Christ has made for keeping alive the faith and hope of His people regarding the universal spread of the gospel, it were as faithless on their part to doubt or despond concerning this glorious result as it would have been in His ancient people to question the faithfulness of the promise: “See, I have given into thine hand Jericho”. And it were as disobedient in the Church now to relinquish the means which she possesses for helping on that result as it would have been in Israel to have left off compassing Jericho while its walls were yet standing. These means may, to all appearance, be utterly inadequate to accomplish the object at which the Church aims, the establishment of Christ’s spiritual authority over all the nations. But they cannot be more so than those which Joshua was commanded to employ at the commencement of his conquests in Canaan; and every such difficulty is met by the simple statement, that the effect is to be measured, not by the instruments employed, but by the almighty power and unchangeable faithfulness of Him who has appointed them.
“Do believers not have enough to forbid their despairing of the triumph of the gospel when they think of their own natural alienation from God, their guilt and helplessness while dead in trespasses and in sins, their aversion to everything spiritual and holy, and the obstinacy with which, it may be, they long resisted the convictions of conscience and the remonstrances of the Word of God? To what then can they ascribe their conversion to God, the subjugation of their rebellious hearts to His will, and their being quickened from spiritual death to spiritual life, but to that almighty agency which, wherever it operates, will prove as irresistible as in their own case?
“And what was the instrument which this divine power employed to subdue them but that before which all spiritual wickednesses in high places are one day to fall, even the doctrine of Christ crucified, making it to them the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation? I do not, of course, mean by these remarks to say that true believers can ever really doubt what is so explicitly and so frequently asserted in Scripture, that the gospel shall be ‘preached to every creature under heaven’, that ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,’ that Christ shall take to Him His great power and reign, subduing the people under Him, and that ‘His dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth’.
“But even with believers all this may be a promise which they do not doubt rather than the subject of a lively faith and an animating hope. It may be like a dormant principle in their heart, called occasionally into activity when they are directly solicited to support some missionary undertaking, but which does not exercise anything like a habitual influence on them in the way either of elevating their affections, or of animating their spirits. They believe that the gospel will ultimately put down error and delusion, and that the kingdom of light will be established on the ruins of the kingdom of darkness. But they may be secretly giving way to the chilling influence of the thought – which, practically, is nearly allied to unbelief – that this glorious and blessed state of things is at a great distance, that they will never see it, and that they cannot be expected to take the same lively interest in the prospect of it as those who shall see its arrival.
“But did they seriously reflect on the subject, they could hardly fail to perceive that by thus permitting their belief in the coming glory of the latter day to lie inactive in their minds as a mere opinion, exercising at best but a feeble influence on their heart, they are shutting up from themselves a source of very pure and elevated enjoyment. For what ought more deeply to interest believers, or what is fitted to furnish a subject of more pleasing contemplation, than the sure prospect of a world converted into one great family knit together by all those holy affections and righteous principles which characterise the children of God – a world which now exhibits, as its general character, everything that ought to be revolting to a renewed soul?
“Besides all this, and still more important, to rest contented with such a cold, uninfluential belief in the progress and universal prevalence of gospel truth is to withhold that homage which is due to Christ, and which, when rendered, must be especially acceptable to Him. To cherish a lively faith and a longing expectation respecting the manifestation of Christ’s mediatorial sovereignty in casting down the strongholds of sin and Satan, and establishing in the hearts and consciences of men His reign of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, must be a spiritual offering which He will receive with approbation. To contribute of our substance to the advancement of His cause when opportunity offers is, no doubt, to honour Christ. But far more is He honoured by the believing, joyful and eager expectation of the due fulfilment of all the glorious things which He has spoken of Zion. This is homage which is not dependent on worldly circumstances and which all His people may therefore equally render to Him. They may not perhaps occupy a prominent place in His Church, they may not be appointed to carry the ark of the testimony, they may not be called directly to the work of proclaiming to their fellow men the glad tidings of salvation. But they may cherish as strong a faith and as earnest a desire and as lively a hope as those who are appointed to more prominent places, regarding the issue of the conflict between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness.
“And this faith and desire and hope will prompt them to the use of an instrument for advancing Christ’s cause which also is equally within the reach of every believer, even fervent, frequent, persevering prayer. And were there felt among Christians generally a deeper interest in the prosperity of Christ’s cause – did they feel it more to be their own personal concern, and the chief, too, of all their concerns, and did they employ appointed means, in the exercise of a stronger faith in the promise of Christ – might we not expect to see that cause more rapidly advance? Let none of His people then be weary in His work nor doubt the ultimate fall of the strongholds of Satan, however frequently they may have been compassed, apparently without effect; for it is a sure promise that ‘He shall have dominion also from sea even to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth’.”
Gordon might well have been surprised if he could have known how many writers of more recent times would take these glorious promises of Scripture in a much more restricted sense than he clearly does. A-millenialism – the belief which discounts the millenium, or what Gordon describes as the glory of the latter days – now has great influence in the evangelical world. Indeed one commentator suggests that it may now be “the majority opinion, at least among the Reformed fraternity within this country”. Certainly the term A-millenialism covers a wide spectrum from the relatively optimistic to the grimly pessimistic. As an example of the latter viewpoint, one might note the republishing in book format (2) of C D Alexander’s Revelation Spiritually Understood; he can see little prospect of any revival of religion before the end of the world. Clearly such expositors believe that the bulk of Scripture prophecy is already fulfilled. Certainly, what God has already done in fulfilment of His prophecies is glorious, but there is a breadth and a richness in them which goes beyond what the world has yet seen.
Our purpose just now, however, is not to argue for a more scriptural outlook on the extent to which the gospel is yet to be blessed in the world. There is enough in the extract from Robert Gordon to indicate how widely the Lord will yet bless His Word. What we wish to emphasise at present is the certainty with which the prophecies of Scripture will be fulfilled. Any impression we may have in these dark days that it is impossible now for the Church of God yet to become the dominant power in this world is surely the result, not only of misinterpreting the Word of God, but also of unbelief. And an optimistic outlook is decidedly appropriate in the light of the prophecy recorded in both Isaiah and Micah: “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills”. Zion, where the temple of the Lord was built, was certainly not a great mountain. Zion, viewed as the Church of God in new Testament times, significant though it has been in the eyes of the Lord and in the eyes of His people, has not yet been exalted above all the other powers of this world. But it will be. God has said it. It is for us to receive His testimony, for nothing is too hard for Him to bring about.
Nothing was more unlikely to be fulfilled than Joseph’s dreams, or so it seemed. And, though Joseph’s faith was tried by the delay in their fulfilment, God certainly kept His promise. So it must be with the promises of worldwide gospel blessing. The faith of God’s people has been tried in connection with these promises, and we do not know how much longer it will have to be tried. But God will most certainly keep His promises. And just as Joseph’s brothers did bow down to him, so God will bring all sinners everywhere to bow before Him, whether in mercy or in judgement, according to the promise that “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow” (Phil 2:10).
1. In Christ in the Old Testament, vol 2, pp 313ff. Free Presbyterian Publications hope to have this valuable four-volume work available by early 2003.
2. Originally published as a series of booklets in the 1960s.