“The Lord has made known his salvation and revealed his righteousness to the nations …. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” Ps 98:3
“Come and see what the LORD has done, The desolations he has brought on the earth; He makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth” Ps. 46:8-9
A look back into history can be both stimulating and sobering. The two scripture texts above help us to look at history through God’s eyes and see what God has been doing in his world. The first text is hugely stimulating; the second is very, very sobering. We need to look at both to get a full picture. It is fascinating to apply these two texts to the 20th century, even if historically we are barely out of it. It was an exceedingly tumultuous century. There are important lessons to be learned from doing this as we travel further into the 21st century.
The good news, the stimulating news, is in the first text, “The Lord has made known his salvation and revealed his righteousness to the nations”. Nothing could be more accurate than this statement when we survey the last hundred years. Millions came to follow Jesus in those one hundred years. The text has proved to be remarkably prophetic, having been written at least 2,500 years ago. But the psalms have a marked prophetic strain running through them, and so we, in our generation, can see those words fulfilled in a way that the psalmist could never have imagined.
When the 20th century dawned great strides had already been taken in planting the evangelical gospel in many “patches” in the world. Salvation was reaching the nations. In particular, Africa had been penetrated to its centre, and also inland China. Thousands of people of many nations had become followers of Jesus. But with the 20th century there came a massive increase in “the making known of God’s salvation”. This was largely due to a succession of very powerful “revival” movements which completely transformed the picture of the Christian world. One of the earliest and long lasting and perhaps the most outstanding of these revivals was the Pentecostal revival which began in an inauspicious Azusa Street of Los Angeles in 1906. Marked in particular with speaking in tongues, but also characterised by healings and other gifts of the Spirit, it spread rapidly as a great many people from many parts of the world came to and from the meetings. The revival’s most spectacular advance was into the Hispanic areas of America (Mexico, the Caribbean Islands) and then into South America proper. In S. America there were some 2 million converts by 1940, there were 5 million by 1950, 10 million by 1960, 20 million by 1970 and 90 million by 2000, 30 million in Brazil alone. This revival spread all over the world, not least in Britain, and the Pentecostal missionary arm was very strong right from the start. By the end of the 20th century there were some 200 million denominational Pentecostals. In addition the Pentecostal revival had, in the latter part of the century, a huge impact in refreshing other mainline denominations, including the Roman Catholics church. By 1985 Catholic “Charismatics” numbered 7.5 million in 80 countries, and by 2000 there were 50 million.
20th Century China was also the scene of repeated revivals. There were revivals in 1908 in Manchuria under Jonathan Goforth, and in 1927 under Watchman nee and John Sung, but the great outpouring of the Spirit came in the latter half of the century after all foreign mission agencies had been ejected by the Communists in 1949-50. At that point the church numbered some 1.5 million. By the end of the century, as a consequence of a purely indigenous revival under heavy persecution, Christians numbered an estimated 50-70 million at least, very probably many more. Africa was also the scene of revival, particularly East Africa. At the beginning of the century there were some 14,000 Christian missionaries at work world-wide, but at the end of the century there were some 200,000 missionaries. Enormous strides were taken in the proclamation of the gospel; previously there had been no century that could remotely equal this 20th century advance; it was unique.
This is just a glimpse of “God revealing his righteousness to the nations” in the last one hundred years. (A fuller account can be found on the website under the Complete Pamphlet Index in pamphlet no. 47 “Signs of the Times – The Gentiles”.) It is very stimulating because one wonders just how much greater the revelation and the harvest could be in the present 21st century. There is a possible prospect of a time of reaping that might dwarf the last century. It could be the era in which the “fullness of the Gentiles is gathered in” Lk. 21:24 . This should hugely strengthen our faith in the prophetic word of promise of Jesus that “this gospel will be preached in all the world and then then end will come” Matt.24:14.
But what about the second text – “see what desolations he (the LORD) has brought on the earth”? This text is equally, and alarmingly, true of the 20th century. This is not such good news! The Lord has revealed his righteousness, but the Lord has also brought desolations. In context the “desolations” that the psalmist has in mind seem very clearly to be wars. Certainly the major area of “desolations” that strike me most forcefully in the 20th century is in the wars that have ravaged the world. We have been reminded in the last year or two on the anniversary of World War 1 of the utter desolations of the battlefields, the wanton and senseless killing and the deep desolations of grief in the homes of the millions killed. A Second World War of even greater magnitude saw greater desolations; again millions were killed in battle; millions of civilians were killed and lost homes. Western Russia was the scene of many massacres, genocide and physical destruction; Germany saw most of its large towns bombed beyond recognition; China was ravaged and devastated with gross cruelty by the Japanese and then by civil war; the Japanese themselves felt the force and horror of atomic bombs. Britain was financially devastated and lost its empire. Then, as this second world conflict came to a conclusion the ensuing stand-off between East and West saw a threatening “cold war” with a nuclear background. It was indeed a century of desolations.
The text brings us a challenge to “come and see” these desolations. We are to “look at them”, “and take note of them”. Interestingly enough the stories of war and battles are very popular; one of the biggest sections in any bookshop is always the section on military history and there is a constant flow of new titles – this has certainly been the case with World War 1. Growing numbers of people now visit the battlefields etc. But I often wonder whether we are just intrigued rather than sobered and concerned as to how and why all this happened? The bible interest certainly is not in weapons or tactics or strategy but in why wars happen and man’s responsibility.
The real challenge of this text, however, lies in the implication that this is God’s doing, “Come and see what the Lord has done”! On the face of it the truth seems to be rather that this scene of desolations is what man has done. It’s the consequence of humanity’s pride, greed, ambition and cruelty. Man is his own worst enemy! The letter to the Romans helps us to put these two viewpoints together: it tells us that men have turned their faces away from God to pursue their own violent, warlike lusts, and God has given them over to the consequences of their choice. Paul describes this “giving over” as a manifestation of the “wrath of God” (Romans 1 and 2). So humanity itself works out the judgement of God by its own actions. God judges the nations through man’s own folly. This is always the case so far as war is concerned. God allows it because men insist on it. And in this conflict of nations, so called “innocent nations” are generally not quite as innocent as they think they are.
What, then, of the 21st century so far? We have not had war on a global scale, but we have certainly seen war, and at this very moment things seem very threatening globally with the lust for power and the fear of being powerless being very much in the ascendance. Modern cyber strategies and other technological advances have now been added to the nuclear threat creating immensely horrific possibilities. And ambition, pride and greed among world leadership show no sign of diminution. The rejection of God and rejection of his call is everywhere. The judgements of God are still running and could escalate. The nations of the Middle East, in particular Syria and Iraq, have suffered enormous distress and desolations, with bitter and vicious fighting, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and homeless people. It has not been a good start. AND YET even throughout the Middle East, indeed particularly in the Middle East the, Lord is making his salvation known in extraordinary manner with thousands of people turning to him as he works with his power and miracles.
It’s a time soberly to take heed of the judgments and pray for restraint (“He makes wars to cease“), and a time to see God’s world-wide plan at work and to praise and give thanks; a time for sober-mindedness and a time for thanksgiving and hope.
N.B. To-day there is a new Bible Page on the subject of “The Beauty of Holiness”. Go to Home Page and click on “Bible Page”