Unrest in North Africa; a sign of the times?
Pastor Tom Chapman of Surrey Chapel in Norwich gives a spiritual perspective to the current upheaval in North Africa.
On December 17 2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, an unlicensed market trader in a small town in Tunisia, doused himself with petrol and set fire to himself. He had been driven to such desperation by the corruption actions of local officials who had pressurised him for bribes, stolen his goods and beaten him up.
He died of his injuries on January 5, unaware of the chain of events that would follow. But his tragic death lit a fuse; protests arose and spread, first in his own country, then to the surrounding nations. The unlikely result of this tragedy? The downfall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, the present turmoil in Libya as Gadaffi takes his last stand; and rising discontent in other North African and Arab nations – nobody knows where this will end.
From a political point of view, there is the possibility that this may lead to freedom and democratic government in these nations – the “Berlin Wall” moment. Yet equally, the unrest could deepen and spread, leading to even more radicalised Islamic regimes taking hold and maybe even a terrifying full-blown war in an already volatile area. We must pray urgently for our political leaders to act wisely at this time.
But what about a spiritual perspective? Some Christians will see in this a “sign of the times” warning of judgement to come – and they will be right. The Bible is clear that history will be characterised by “wars and rumours of wars” and, as through all church history, events like these should sober us up for the fact that the Lord will one day return, and prompt us to be ready to meet him.
However, there is also an equally strong strand in scripture that connects events like these with the promise of spiritual revival – and that is a prospect that should excite us.
Let us remember that for several centuries before the Islamic conquest, these nations were a powerhouse of the Christian world, home to spiritual giants like Athanasius and Augustine. Libya is in the headlines now - and in Biblical times, Libyans (from the ancient city of Cyrene) also had prominent roles. A Libyan carried Christ's cross (Luke 23:26); Libyans were among the first personal evangelists (Acts 11:20) and the first church leaders (Acts 3:1). Libyans were also present at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10), and so they heard Peter quote and apply these famous words from Joel:
"In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved."
These words confused me for some time: it is straightforward to see how the outpouring of the Spirit on ordinary believers was fulfilled at Pentecost through to the present day. But what about the cosmic signs and wonders? Apart from a few hours of darkness and other rumblings on Good Friday, we have not seen much of these things since. Is it just looking forward to literally the very last day? But Peter sets the whole passage in the context of the “last days” - meaning all the time between then and now. So what happened to this part of the prophecy?
I found this a very helpful insight: In the Old Testament Prophets, cosmic disturbances involving the sun, moon and stars are often (though not always) a symbolic portrayal of contemporary political upheavals. See below for a justification of this interpretation*. If this is correct then events on our screens should excite us as much as they alarm us: in the downfall of oppressive regimes, God is continuing to fulfil the promises of Pentecost!
There is reason to expect a close connection between political upheaval and the outpouring of the Spirit. These events give us real hope to pray, not just for peace, but for spiritual revival in this part of the world where for so long the church has been a tiny oppressed minority. The “signs of the times” are as much about salvation as they are about judgement; everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!
This would be a truly thrilling to happen in our lifetime, and very remarkable, perhaps even more significant than the fall of the Soviet Union. People have hoped it would happen for many years, but who would dare predict it? Does anyone really expect it? But then, nobody predicted or expected what has already happened. That something as apparently insignificant as Mr Bouazizi’s despairing suicide could have had the results that have taken place so far – it’s taken us all by surprise. It was completed unexpected and totally unpredicted, yet the death of a “mere” market trader is bringing tyrants crashing down. There is plenty of reason to see God’s hand at work in this – and expect that he has even greater surprises up his sleeve.
*In support of this view, take a look at the following examples and the context in which the signs and wonders are set:
- Isaiah 13:10-13 describes the defeat of Babylon.
- Isaiah 34:4 refers to the downfall of Edom
- Ezekiel 32:6-8 is in the context of the fall of the Pharoah of Egypt
- Joel 2:10 anticipates the judgement of Israel itself
Of course these texts may also look forward to events at the very end of time; Old Testament prophecies have many layers of fulfilment. But the primary reference in these texts is the political events of the day.
Pictured above: Pastor Tom Chapman