In the August 25, 2014 issue of Time magazine we found an article with this heading: “An Evil That Must Be Stopped: ISIS is the most serious threat to American interests in a decade. Why we must counter it.”
If you have been watching world events lately, you have surely heard of ISIS, or ISIL. But maybe you wonder, who or what is ISIS? The acronym ISIS means “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” and ISIL means “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” ISIS and ISIL are the same group. ISIS is a new radical Islamic terrorist group of the Sunni branch that split off from the older al-Qaeda, but is worse than it. According to the article above, “ISIS is considered so extreme that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda’s central command, has condemned it.” “People like [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.” Their vision is to set up a new caliphate, an Islamic state, by taking over the entire Middle East, including Israel, and ultimately the whole world. “Terrorism has a new name, and now, for the first time, it has a well-organized, well-funded, well-armed military with the ability to take and perhaps hold territory.” ISIS makes use of brutal and shocking tactics. As of this writing, they have beheaded three Western journalists on camera and crucified many Christians in the Middle East. They are growing in numbers: “There are reports of hundreds of would-be jihadis from around the world joining ISIS, including dozens from the U.S.” Is it really a threat to the United States? ISIS “aspires to attack the U.S. and will, no doubt, soon attempt to do so. This is a threat we cannot ignore.”
In the September 22, 2014 issue of Time, in an article entitled “The Never-Ending War,” we read that President Obama did not anticipate this new threat. In his second Inaugural speech he declared “a decade of war is now ending.” In a May 2013 speech he said, “This war, like all wars, must end…. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.” But this noble ideal will not be realized until Christ returns and ushers in the new heavens and the new earth. The terrorists do not care about our president’s ideal to end all wars. According to the same article, “The number of radical Islamic groups has increased nearly 60% in the past four years.” A former Homeland Security adviser said that our president “wanted to end the war on terror and is now dealing with a threat that is actually much more global….”
Not surprisingly, therefore, another war has now begun. On Tuesday, September 23, 2014 the United States and five Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates) launched a set of intense air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq that essentially began another war. It has yet to be seen whether this new war will be brief, with this alliance of powers quickly crushing ISIS, or whether it will be a long and drawn out conflict.
We might also note that in addition to this larger threat, involving the rise of ISIS, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas (in Gaza) has heated up again in recent months.
But how should we view this current war as Reformed Christians? What is the significance of it from the viewpoint of biblical eschatology? How does it fit into our view of the last things?
The premillennial dispensationalists, who include a huge number of American evangelicals, see these events as incredibly significant indicators that the rapture of the church will be any day now. They are on high alert. One prominent dispensationalist by the name of Joel Rosenberg, who writes novels in which he imagines possible scenarios leading up to the last days, gave a speech at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago on September 10, 2014 urging some 1,600 students to pay close attention to this crisis in the Middle East and to do whatever they can to support Israel (www.joelrosenberg.com. Click on “Joel’s Blog”). Dispensationalists see these wars as setting the stage for a series of events in a seven-year period after the rapture and before the coming of Christ. Either before or after the rapture, on the basis of a wrong interpretation of Ezekiel 38-39, they expect a massive assault on the modern state of Israel by a coalition of nations including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Libya (cf. Mark Hitchcock, Iran, the Coming Crisis: Radical Islam, Oil, and the Nuclear Threat, Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2006, 167). Therefore they are on high alert as the conflict heats up again in the area that Rosenberg calls the “epicenter” of the world, the Middle East. They are busy praying for the peace of Jerusalem, meaning not the church but the city in modern Israel. In his speech on September 10, Rosenberg urged the students to “learn, pray, give, and go” to help Israel, because God promised to Abraham, and thus to modern Israel, “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curseth thee” (). Rosenberg urges us to bless the modern nation of Israel.
But all this tremendous enthusiasm on the part of dispensationalists is based on a foundation of sand. It is based on the error that Israel of the Old Testament was not the church, and that as a nation, even though they reject Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews are still the special people of God to whom He intends to fulfill His Old Testament promises. But Paul emphatically teaches that the true children of Abraham are not physical Jews, as for example when he writes, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (). Moreover, the enthusiasm of dispensationalists is based on an overly literalistic interpretation of names, numbers, and other biblical data that produces this bizarre prediction that Russia, Turkey, Iran, and other nations are about to join forces and attack Israel. And this erroneous interpretation also produces the strange doctrine of the rapture of the church before the rise of Antichrist and the great tribulation. Scripture knows nothing of a pre-tribulation rapture of the church. Rather, we are warned that Antichrist will make war with the saints, that is, with the church ( ). The zeal of dispensationalists in respect to this current conflict is thus misguided.
And yet we ask, is there any significance to the rise of ISIS and the ongoing Middle East conflict? After all, we are not postmillennialists either, who discard these wars as signs of Christ’s coming, who dream of a world that is getting better and better, who close their eyes to reality and look for a golden age of Christian history over the whole world.
No, the rise of ISIS and the wars in the Middle East are clear signs of the coming of Christ. Concerning the whole period prior to His second coming, Jesus said to His disciples, “Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars.” And He added: “See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (). Christ sits at God’s right hand now and opens the seven seals. He opens the second seal too. This is what John then sees: “And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword” ( ). Christ sovereignly rules over all wars. He causes nation to rise against nation in order to prevent, until the proper time, the antichristian kingdom from achieving world dominion and peace. He prevents this in order that His church might do her work of preaching the gospel in all nations and training up her children in the fear of the Lord, until the full number of the elect is gathered. According to Herman Hoeksema, if the red horse did not run, if there were no wars, “the kingdom of Antichrist would reach the height of its development prematurely,” and it “would naturally leave no standing room for the true church of God on earth. It would persecute and, if possible, destroy the kingdom of God in the world” (Behold He Cometh. 2nd ed., Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2000, 214).
The rise of ISIS and this new war is a means Christ is using to prevent that premature development of the kingdom of the Beast and to give His church time to finish her work in the world.
But maybe there is something more to be noted in this present conflict, as well as in the entire set of conflicts in the Middle East in the past ten years or so. I have my eye on the second set of judgments shown to John in Revelation, the trumpets, which indicate an increase in the severity of the judgments that will come before Christ returns. I am looking specifically at the sixth trumpet, which gives rise to a voice in heaven saying,
Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates. And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men. And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them. And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths. For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like unto serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt ().
This trumpet blast, which results in the slaying of one third of men, unleashes a war that is greater than all that have preceded it. As was said earlier, it has yet to be seen whether this war with ISIS will be brief or drawn out, whether it will involve much or little bloodshed, whether it will remain chiefly in the Middle East or spread into other parts of the world. Thus, we do not at all mean to say that this specific conflict is the sixth trumpet. Yet there is something here that calls for our attention. The sixth trumpet causes a voice to cry out for the loosing of the four angels in the great river Euphrates. And these angels release an army of 2,000,000 horsemen who kill the third part of men with fire, smoke, and brimstone. This war begins in the great river Euphrates, which Hoeksema calls “the ideal and real boundary-line between the outward kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness, and therefore the symbol of the boundary-line between the Christian and the heathen nations, between the so-called civilized world and Gog and Magog” (Behold He Cometh, 331). We might add: between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. Hoeksema, who wrote decades before the rise of Islamic terrorism in the twenty-first century, says this about the sixth trumpet:
For our text pictures to us, according to our deepest conviction, a war which is caused by the inroads of these numberless nations [“the nations that are living at the four corners of the earth, outside the pale of civilization, and which in Scripture are known as Gog and Magog”] into the so-called civilized and Christian nations…. The purpose of these four angels is evidently to seduce the nations of Gog and Magog, and inspire them to war with the Christian world…. When they are let loose, the woes of war and famine and desolation and pestilence flood the world, rising from the east and coming from the direction of the Euphrates upon the entire world (331-332).
Look at a map of the Middle East. Do you see the Euphrates River running from the northwest to the southeast and emptying into the Persian Gulf? I am looking right now at a map of the Middle East that plots all the areas under ISIS control. These areas are along the Euphrates River.
Again, I will not assert at this point that the rise of ISIS is the blowing of the sixth trumpet. But I call your attention to this passage of Scripture, so that you will keep your eye on these current events and how they unfold. It may be that this is only one more war among the many wars that have occurred since Christ ascended into heaven. Then too, it is a sign of His coming. But we believe that someday a war is going to happen that will “rise from the east and come from the direction of the Euphrates upon the entire world.” Let us watch, for we know not what hour our Lord will return ().
But, let us not fear. Our Lord said, “See that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (). We may suffer affliction, even war, but these things are not judgments of God for us. They are trials of faith. They can do us no real harm. They are meant for our good. They are sent and controlled by the Lamb who shed His blood for us. They are signs that He is coming back for us. They ought, therefore, to quicken in our hearts a yearning for His coming. For after the sixth trumpet, the seventh shall sound and give rise to voices 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. And the four and twenty elders, which sat before God on their seats, fell upon their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth ().