Finding Hope Amidst a Devouring Fire
“A fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns; the land is like the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; surely nothing shall escape” (Joel 2:3, emphasis added throughout).
This passage describing the prophesied Great Tribulation may not yet have reached fulfillment, but for millions of Ukrainians, the past five weeks have surely delivered a bitter foretaste. As Russia shifts its invasion force to the energy-rich eastern Ukraine, relentless reports of barbaric assaults against innocent Ukrainian civilians fill news media accounts nearly everywhere.
Given that I have personal family relationships in Ukraine and also that Bev and I have long-standing experience in helping children and Sabbatarian groups in the region, the news continues to be painful beyond description.
For us, to watch the news from Ukraine is akin to viewing a CGI-enhanced horror show in slow motion. Only with Ukraine, there are no CGI special effects. The photos and videos all reflect unspeakable atrocities in real time.
Incomprehensible financial accounts of Russian-inflicted damage are now starting to appear. While admitting upfront that “the true extent of the devastation in Ukraine will be a lot worse,” the British Economist magazine cites current financial costs tallied by the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE). As of April 1, physical damage in Ukraine has exceeded at least $68 billion.
But unfathomable numbers are emerging. Soon-to-come estimates of the devastation are expected to exceed half a trillion dollars and higher. As the Economist reports: “There has been at least $58 billion worth of damage to transport infrastructure. Some 196 health-care facilities have been destroyed, which will cost another $2 billion to rebuild. These numbers are incomplete: economic losses, destruction of livestock and crops, and a shrinking workforce as people flee are not included. Ukraine’s Ministry of Economy and KSE estimate that total losses could range from $564 billion to $600 billion, or 2.8 to 3 times its GDP in 2021.”
But it gets even more incomprehensible when one considers the fact that more than five million Ukrainians (women, children and senior men) have already fled the vicious Russian onslaught.
Five million people can be a hard-to-understand abstraction when one personally knows the people and the pain that is deeply felt and shared.
Former U.S. General David Petraeus noted this week that “Ukraine has won the battles of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.” But at what cost? This is where it gets personal.
As I have mentioned previously, Chernihiv is the city of 285,000 where we—through the LifeNets humanitarian organization—have supported the Revival Centre for Disabled Children for more than a quarter of a century. It is but 30 miles from the shuttered Chernobyl nuclear plant.
We continue to receive heartrending reports as miraculously the Centre has continued to serve 50 children and others, despite the devastating Russian pounding of Chernihiv (70% of the city is destroyed from rocket and mortar attacks)! Operating despite the loss of almost all electricity, gas and water (all during 40–50°F weather), the staff has constructed makeshift cooking areas and dug latrines in the once-beautiful gardens. Their inspiring dedication is truly encouraging and gives us hope!
Our medical contacts have urgently requested inverters to convert battery power to AC current which, through LifeNets connections, we are purchasing and transporting through Poland and hopefully soon over the Ukrainian border. We have been able to get some food to these people as the Russians have retreated from Chernihiv. Your prayers for success will be appreciated here.
We have also heard from my family members there, some of whom have reached comparative safety, thank God! All the windows in my cousin’s Kharkiv home had been blown out by compression blasts from Russian bombing. He lamented to me about the national pain when now there is not a moment when someone is not getting killed or raped. There has been no news from my cousin’s nephew, who was in the region of the Kharkiv air strikes two weeks ago. Recovery of bodies from the destroyed city center is continuing as families are identifying their loved ones at the morgues.
The Ukrainian Sabbatarian groups with whom we have long worked live in the comparative safety of western Ukraine. In an inspiring development, they have converted their church buildings to accommodate beds and living areas for refugees!
We remain in contact with a number of other Ukrainians, including former homeless “street children” whom LifeNets helped from 2001 to 2016. One of them is happily married and refuses to evacuate. The fear of being separated and then not knowing if and when families will be reunited is very real. Time magazine and other international media have reported Russia “forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia,” including at least 80,000 children, taking their passports from them and treating them as hostages.
Bev and I also remain humbly grateful for the many offers of help from members of the United Church of God. UCG families both in the United States and Canada have offered to take in Ukrainian refugees. Every day we have had several communications with people throughout Ukraine as we try to find ways to get aid to them. It is all a very trying process in the face of continually shifting conditions.
Is this the “Time of the End”?
Because of my Ukrainian background and the fact that I have made many trips to Russia and the former Soviet Union, I am often asked about Bible prophecy concerning the region. The Church of God community has long shown great interest in the Ezekiel prophecies about “Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh, Meshech, and Tubal” (Ezekiel 38:2).
Further, the detailed prophecies about the King of the North and the King of the South in the 11th chapter of Daniel have long been the source of much discussion.
Beyond Today TV and magazines have long proclaimed much about these prophecies. A new and important Bible Study Guide with up-to-date information from these sources titled Russia and Bible Prophecy is now available for download. It features articles on prophecy and history written by Scott Ashley, Tom Robinson, Mario Seiglie and me. The Bible Study Guide will be featured in the next edition of the Beyond Today magazine, together with fresh coverage of the emerging prophetic situation. You can download it here ucg.org/bible-study-tools/booklets/russia-and-bible-prophecy.
When people ask me “Is this the time of the end?” the short answer is: not yet.
Gog and Magog symbolize sinister actions by exceptionally large nation-states in both the coming end times and also at the end of the prophesied millennial rule of Jesus Christ, where they reappear (Revelation 20:8-9). The physical and behavioral characteristics of these prophetic nation-states match up with characteristics of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Both countries hold long and bloody histories of genocide, with Mao Zedong himself responsible for an incomprehensible record of causing 45 million deaths during the so-called “Great Leap Forward” from 1958–1962.
So what are we to do in a time today where an initial “devouring fire” has ignited in Ukraine and elsewhere? What do we do when being overrun by injustice?
The apostle Paul has a good answer: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13, English Standard Version). The Greek word for “watch” literally means to “stay awake.” Jesus Himself gives us a warning and some good news: “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:12-13, ESV).
As hostile devouring fire spreads in Europe and Asia, let us be among those who watch, who stand fast, who are courageously strong—and who endure to the end!
I will conclude with Psalm 10, which is a song of confidence in God’s triumph over evil:
“Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble? The wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; let them be caught in the plots which they have devised.
“For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire; He blesses the greedy and renounces the LORD. The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts.
“His ways are always prospering; Your judgments are far above, out of his sight; as for all his enemies, he sneers at them. He has said in his heart, ‘I shall not be moved; I shall never be in adversity.’ His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is trouble and iniquity.
“He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the secret places he murders the innocent; his eyes are secretly fixed on the helpless. He lies in wait secretly, as a lion in his den; he lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor when he draws him into his net. So he crouches, he lies low, that the helpless may fall by his strength. He has said in his heart, ‘God has forgotten; He hides His face; He will never see.’
“Arise, O LORD! O God, lift up Your hand! Do not forget the humble. Why do the wicked renounce God? He has said in his heart, ‘You will not require an account.’
“But You have seen, for You observe trouble and grief, to repay it by Your hand. The helpless commits himself to You; You are the helper of the fatherless. Break the arm of the wicked and the evil man; seek out his wickedness until You find none.
“The LORD is King forever and ever; the nations have perished out of His land. LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear, to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may oppress no more.”