The Christmas Jigsaw

Every year my wife receives a new 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. It has long been a tradition in her family. After Christmas day is over, she opens the box and spreads the pieces out on the dining room table. Over the next several days, she gradually pieces it together, with me offering occasional assistance.

When you open the box of such a jigsaw, it can seem very daunting, looking at so many small pieces. The picture on the box may be a beautiful scene. But the open box full of 1000 small jumbled pieces gives no impression of the picture as a whole. Motivation is important with such a jigsaw. Something must make you want to spend hours piecing all those small pieces together. Admittedly there are some years when the Christmas puzzle is abandoned before completion, and ends up back in its box, gathering dust on a shelf. Next Christmas approaches, and last year's puzzle is given to the charity shop, having never been fully solved.

The Christmas jigsaw reminds me of the end time puzzle. As we look at the new heaven and new earth at the end of the bible in Revelation 21-22, we see a glorious scene, a fantastic ending to the history of this world as we know it. In another sense, it is an incomplete picture. If we want to understand how it comes about and the circumstances that precede it, we have to trawl through the bible to find all the prophetic pieces and then try to piece them together. Even then, doing so raises many questions that scholars have debated over for millennia. It is easy to see why most Christians abandon the task, and it is left on the shelf like the Christmas puzzle. Instead, we satisfy ourselves with a superficial understanding of future events, and that it will somehow all pan out correctly in the end.

But there are some years when we do complete the Christmas puzzle. As well as time and motivation, such a puzzle requires strategy. Firstly, you might spread the pieces out on a large table and turn them all face up. You need to be able to see each one, not just piles of pieces. Secondly, you need to start sorting the pieces into groups. The most important group is that of all the edge pieces. If you can complete the outer frame using the edge pieces, the rest of the jigsaw then fits within this framework. After the edge pieces, you might group pieces with similar colours, and then piece together clusters that fit somewhere within the outer framework. Thirdly, you refer frequently to the picture on the box. It is there as your guide, giving you an overview of the whole picture. Fourthly, you engage in a process of trial-and-error. You must be ready to try pieces in different positions, with different orientations. Some pieces may, for a time, seem to fit in one place, but later you realise they perhaps fit elsewhere. You must be prepared to admit that some of your earlier assumptions were wrong and to make changes. It can be frustrating to admit that a piece you thought you had placed correctly is actually wrong. But be prepared to move it.

Let's now look at how these relate to biblical prophecy. The first strategy point is to lay the pieces out so you can see each piece clearly. The bible contains 1189 chapters, but most of its information about the future is contained in about 150 chapters. In addition, about another 100 chapters contain information where it is debatable whether they describe future events or events in the past. When you consider all these chapters, and the many verses within them, you find you have a lot of pieces. It is certainly not the kind of puzzle you can solve in just a few days after Christmas!

When I was considering Jesus' illustration of the weather forecast, I spoke about mathematics and trying to solve unknowns in many variables. With the end time puzzle, we need to work out what the variables are before we can hope to solve them. I said that in mathematics, if you have more variables than distinct equations, you have to take educated guesses about some variables before you can hope to solve the rest. But doing so involves making assumptions, and means that your resulting solution is not necessarily the only possible one. So it is with the end time puzzle. Different scholars make different assumptions about some of the variables, and come to different conclusions. That does not mean they are not godly Christians, or lack commitment to the integrity of scripture. Neither does it mean that we should give up, or avoid making our own assumptions or seeking our own conclusions. But it does mean that we need humility, and that we should respect Christians with opinions different to our own. Perhaps they have some of the pieces that we are missing. And vice verse, perhaps we have some of the pieces that they are missing.

Imagine that rather than working alone, trying to solve the Christmas puzzle on your dining room table, you are instead in a large hall with many tables. Each table has the same Christmas puzzle, and a group of people trying to solve it together. If it were a competition to see which team could be the first to solve the Christmas puzzle, then it would be cheating to wander around the hall and see what progress others had made. The end time puzzle is a bit like that. In its history the Church has had many different groups of people trying to solve it. But it is not a competition, and it is not cheating to consider the progress others have made.