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The Element of Surprise

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The Element of Surprise

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The Communist leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, boldly proclaimed in 1989 that the Berlin Wall would stand for another 100 years! Ten months later the wall was gone, but his infamous quote lives on in a newspaper headline glued to little pieces of the wall and sold to tourists. I bought one not long ago on a trip to Europe.

The Berlin Wall fell suddenly—Nov. 9-12, 1989—and Honecker wasn't the only one surprised. Its dismantling, and the failure of the entire Eastern European communist system it symbolized, came with a speed that surprised the entire world.

Almost instantly a building boom began, and the East Berlin drabness was soon replaced by modern, impressive skyscrapers, business towers and entertainment centers. That transformation, too, came so fast it was almost stunning.

Surprising Muslim protests and European backlash

It was also while I was in Europe that the Muslim world violently reacted to the cartoons depicting Muhammad that were originally published in a Danish newspaper. This reaction, too, erupted suddenly, its intensity catching many governments and pundits off guard. Just as quickly, a backlash flared up as many Europeans began venting their long-simmering anti-Muslim sentiment.

I thought at the time that it's not hard to see how, in such a divided and sensitized world, the prophesied conflict described in Daniel 11:40 could reach a boil virtually overnight. Daniel describes a "king of the South" pushing at the "king of the North" (see our booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy for more details). Today tensions sufficient to set the world on fire can spark suddenly, and in a variety of ways, easily catching people totally off guard.

It has happened before—and it will happen again.

How quickly life can change

We should know how quickly our world can change. Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Americans are acutely aware of how events, whether man-made or natural, can swiftly alter a nation's future course. Similar wake-up calls have hit other countries, too, such as the Madrid, Bali and London bombings, the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last December and the Hezbollah attacks that quickly accelerated into war in northern Israel and southern Lebanon.

Our vulnerability to sudden change should make us heed an often-overlooked, but critically important, element of prophecy. Consider a common thread in the following prophecies.

Isaiah 5:7-20 describes a time in Israel's history eerily similar to today, when spiritually confused people mislabeled evil good and good evil. Because of their sins, verse 26 foretells a time when their punishment would come "with speed, swiftly."

Judah and Israel experienced the suddenness of prophetic fulfillment on several occasions. Jeremiah prophesied: "Destruction upon destruction is cried, for the whole land is plundered. Suddenly my tents are plundered, and my curtains in a moment" (Jeremiah 4:20). After describing the covetousness, dishonesty and rebellion of God's people, he warned of punishment that "will suddenly come upon us" (Jeremiah 6:26; see 13-19 and 22-26).

We would be foolish to dismiss these accounts as mere ancient history and miss the lessons for our day.

Zephaniah also took up the theme of sudden destruction, but plainly with an eye on events not yet fulfilled. "The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and hastens quickly . . . For He will make speedy riddance of all those who dwell in the land" (Zephaniah 1:14, 18).

In the verses immediately following, God urgently pleads for us to see the storm clouds on the horizon. "Gather yourselves together . . . before the day of the LORD's anger comes upon you! Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD's anger" (2:1-3).

Malachi, too, emphasizes this: "And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple" (Malachi 3:1).

Christ's warning to watch

Jesus Himself stressed the concept of suddenness and surprise with regard to His return: "Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming . . . lest coming suddenly, he find you sleeping" (Mark 13:35-36).

One scripture carries a particularly powerful metaphor in light of the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall. Isaiah 30 tells of a time when people won't listen to God, or even read the obvious "handwriting on the wall." God declares, therefore, "This iniquity shall be to you like a breach ready to fall, a bulge in a high wall, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant" (verse 13).

Just so was the Berlin Wall. Political pressure built up for years until events could be held back no longer. One observer wrote, "The fall of the wall began the day it was built, only it took 30 years for it to be torn down." The sins of a nation are likewise! Unrepented of, they build up for a while, seemingly without effect. But when God calls for an accounting, the destruction can come with shocking suddenness.

We see in all of these scriptures two things: When God determines it is time to move, He is not delayed by anything—He moves, and He can move swiftly. At the same time, people blind to the signs of the times are staggered by the apparent suddenness of unfolding events.

These events won't be sudden to God, though! He's laid out these pronouncements for thousands of years. Yet He has embedded the element of sudden surprise throughout His prophetic warnings. It's as if He is alerting us not only about coming events, but also to another danger. We are easily prone to falling asleep, only to be stunned by the suddenness with which those events take place.

In one of the most penetrating parables in the Bible, Christ warns of the frantic reaction many will have upon realizing they are waking up too late.

Carefully read through the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25:6-13, and put yourself in the shoes of the foolish. Can you hear the angst and desperation in their voices crying "Lord, Lord, open to us!"? Can you sense the depth of feeling that Christ has and His sense of urgency as He pleads His point: "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming"?

Understand very clearly what Christ is telling us: When these things begin to happen, we will either have a sense of urgency before, or a sense of panic after! And those who do not have a sense of urgency will be stunned by the suddenness of the events unfolding.

The thrust of this article isn't really about prophecy—it's about our response to prophecy. Being given an understanding of prophecy is only as good as our reaction to it! Both history and fulfilled prophecy stand as a witness that human nature is easily lulled to sleep. Ignorance, deception, skepticism and apathy work powerfully to depress the spiritual senses. If we are not stirred to spiritual action by understanding prophecy, then what good is it for us to know all of these things?

Back to Europe

While in Europe I talked with a United Church of God minister in Italy about the general mood of Europeans today. He said: "When is the last time in history Europe had 60 years of peace? We are in a golden era of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This is coming on the heels of the two worst wars in history that devastated us. But look how quickly we have rebuilt. The mood in Europe today is, ‘We don't need God!'"

It's true. Europe 's rise from the rubble has been swift and spectacular. But its humanistic, materialistic system will lead the entire world to places it does not envision. In end-time prophecy, Europe is described in terms of not only the king of the North, but as the final culmination of an institution symbolized by the great empire of Babylon (see our booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled for more on this). This system eventually brings the world to the brink of annihilation before God decisively steps in to save us.

Revelation 18:4-5 warns God's people to come out of this sin-laden "Babylon" before He destroys it. In four verses (8, 10, 17, 19) we again note the element of surprise at work for those in its grip. These scriptures point out that not only will the world lament its downfall, but people will marvel at how remarkably fast the system crumbles. "In one day" and "in one hour" are phrases denoting the shock and awe at how speedily God brings its ruin.

No doubt that is why Jesus warned: "Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and the cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth" (Luke 21:34-35).

Snares work precisely because they trap their victims suddenly, unexpectedly. Jesus continued, "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (verse 36).


Watch for the future, keeping your eyes on the coming Kingdom of God.

Watch in the present, keeping your eyes on what is happening in the world, understanding the prophecies being fulfilled.

Watch by learning lessons of the past, keeping your eyes on the rearview mirror of history, learning the lessons of how suddenly events can unfold when God decides to intervene.

Above all, watch yourself to make sure you are properly responding to God's warnings and instructions. And remember: Those who have a sense of urgency now will not have a sense of panic later, when these things will surely come to pass. The choice is yours! GN