The Bible has a myriad of prophecies, and most people would confirm that many of them have not been fulfilled. There are predictions of the last days, the return of Christ, the rapture of the church, the Antichrist, the millennium, the resurrection of the dead, and the new heaven and earth. The Bible speaks of these events in a myriad of passages and an entire book (Revelation) dedicated to the themes. The prophecies come from Old Testament and New Testament books, showing up in all kinds of literature. We have allusions to the end of times in the Psalms and other wisdom writings. The prophetic writings have much to say about the Day of the Lord and the final judgment. Daniel uses an image of a 70 week period that is symbolic of these events. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the final judgment, His return, and the last days often. Many of the New Testament predictions of these events came from His lips. There are also all kinds of images and ideas put forth by the rest of the New Testament writers, including lengthy passages by Paul, Peter, John, and Jude. Some estimates are that as much as 25% of the Bible’s teaching content is still looking forward to the final day and these prophesied events.
Throughout church history Christians have been looking to these passages in an attempt to understand their meanings and even figure out the events that are pictured. In our lifetime this has become a major church industry. Shelves at Christian bookstores are often filled with books trying to explain the prophecies and predict future events. Some of the best-selling books in the last 20 years came from authors writing on these things from a specific viewpoint on these issues giving fictional accounts of what they believe are very real and historically accurate predictions about the future. In fact, we are about to have another go-around with the Left Behind stories as a major motion picture telling of the first book in the series is due to release next year with Nicholas Cage among others starring. This will draw a whole new audience into this genre of literature and attempt to foretell future events using Bible prophecy.
But I would like to make the argument here that this is actually a misuse of purpose of prophecy in the Bible. I do not believe the Bible gives us prophecies so that we can predict future events. Rather, I believe God graciously gives us His word and the prophecies so that when the events happen we will know that it is God doing what He said He would do, and therefore know it is His activity accomplishing His plan. In other words, I do not think it is helpful for the church to have people read Bible prophecy and teach it in such a way that they create charts of future events and seek to determine the identity of the Antichrist or the time of the rapture and return of Jesus. This is the popular approach, but there are several problems with reading prophecy alongside the newspaper and seeking to match prophecies with the times and then predict the future. Let me give you 3 reasons I have issues with this approach.
1)The first, and the most significant reason this frightens me is that the Jewish people were doing the exact same thing in the First Century with prophecies of the coming Messiah, and in their zeal they missed Jesus completely. They had studied the Old Testament texts from the prophets about the coming one whom God would send to rescue and redeem Israel. By the time of Jesus’ birth there was a messianic zeal in Israel. They were genuinely and passionately looking for this promised King who would arise from among them and deliver them. Teachers had produces charts and teaching series on how they could know if someone was the Messiah. Of course, they focused primarily on the passages that showed the Messiah as a conquering King and bypassed passages about Jesus’ humble nature, lowly birth, rejection, and suffering. The expectations created by their reading of the prophetic passages left them looking for a great conqueror who would ride into Jerusalem on a white horse and raise an army to cast off the evil Roman Empire. When Jesus did come His mission was to deal with a much greater enemy than the Romans, He came to forgive sin, conquer Satan, and defeat death. But because they read the Old Testament prophecies through a specific lens, the promised Messiah came and the majority of Jewish people completely missed him. This is nowhere clearer than in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2) where the Magi ask Jewish leaders about the location of the Messiah’s birth, and they are told Bethlehem, but none of the religious leaders actually attempt to find Jesus. Because, in their mind, even though Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, if it was truly God’s anointed his birth would have come with fanfare. I fear that many today read prophecies through lenses that may cause them to miss the Messiah again when He comes again because they are making similar mistakes. They have a defined picture of what the coming Messiah will look like, and if Jesus’ coming does not resemble their image they might also be found rejecting Him. But another problem here is that you will also find people who try to do things that only God can do in history. The clearest example of this in our current day is the Zionist movement, people who want the US to support Israel without any reservations or expectations that Israel will act justly. They do this because they somehow have come to believe that America’s purpose is prophecy is to uphold that nation, as if God needs our nation to accomplish His purpose. But in doing this, often, we neglect the needs of Christians in other surrounding countries.
2)Jesus flat out told us not to predict the time and place of His coming! Yep, Matthew 24:36-44 is fairly clear on this. The interesting thing is that Matthew 24 contains Jesus’ clearest prophetic predictions on Jesus coming again, and on the judgment to God’s enemies and blessings to His people. Many of the ideas in these books and in end times fanatics charts comes from this very chapter. But then Jesus gives a warning that no one knows this day and hour, and that “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” So Jesus gives a bunch of predictions, which have been interpreted in a myriad of ways throughout the history of the church, then he says, but realize, no one knows when this will happen and it will happen when you are not expecting it. So anyone who reads the newspaper and then tries to show how the events are coming in the next two years is expecting it, and therefore denying the words of Jesus here.
3)People who do this have to change their story every 2-3 years. In the 1980’s, during the Cold War the prophecies were going to be fulfilled by Russia coming down into Israel, joining forces with the Middle Eastern world to wage war on Jerusalem. But then the Berlin Wall fell, and the story changed. In the 1990’s it was America’s wars in Iraq and the tensions caused by the need for oil that would usher in the Last Day. Then in 2001 planes flew into buildings, that had to be the sign, right? You get the gist here. The problem is that people develop a hunger to know everything and want someone to give them a chart and a movie so they can know what will happen, and end times teachers are happy to oblige them at considerable profit. But when things don’t go off like the teacher said they would, the followers and event seekers will get disillusioned with Christianity and will begin doubt the Bible. The problem, though, is not with the Bible or with Christ, but with people who claim to know what the Bible says they cannot know.
So, if predicting the future is not the purpose of predictive prophecy, then what is it’s purpose in Scripture. Let me give you three thoughts that build on each other and are in order here.
1)Predictive prophecy assures us that God is working and will accomplish His purpose. We see this on two levels. First, as we read Scripture we see predictive prophecies that have already been fulfilled with uncanny specificity. In Isaiah 44-45, the prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus the Persian by name and describes his conquest of the world in vivid detail as he writes over 200 years before Cyrus is born. We can look back with awe at this. Micah predicts the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem over 800 years before Christ came, and we know that God used the greed of the Roman Emperor to send Mary and Joseph to this little shepherding village and it was there that Jesus was born (Micah 5:2). We can look at these and know that God has already accomplished His purpose and that He acts. We can also know that there are prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled, which gives us hope that God is not finished, that He will accomplish His purpose, and we have hope. Yes, there are some things we can know from these prophecies, like the fact that Jesus will come again and that we will rise again bodily from the dead. But how and when that will happen is still a bit of a mystery. But we can know that God is going to fulfill His purpose.
2)Predictive prophecy is best to be interpreted in retrospect after events that have been prophesied have happened. In other words, we need to be very careful about looking forward to what we believe prophecies predict with assurance of our interpretation. On the other hand, when an event happens we can then know that this is what God was speaking of as He revealed His plan through the mouth of the prophets. If you read the Gospel of Matthew you will see that this is exactly how he uses prophecy. As Matthew shows us the life of Jesus, at least 40 different times he uses the language of fulfillment, saying things like, “This (event or idea from Jesus life) happened to fulfill what the prophet said,” and then Matthew will quote an Old Testament text. For example, Matthew says this very thing in Matthew 1:22-23 as he quotes Isaiah 7 about Jesus’ mother being a virgin. It is as if he was saying, “You know that passage we have always read and couldn’t quite figure out, that text that told us Messiah’s mom would be a virgin. Remember how we joked about how that was impossible, and if anyone ever came home and told their mom that she was pregnant without a dude, no one would believer her, not even her mom. Well, let me tell you, it happened just like this with Jesus.” You see, when people read Isaiah 7:14 before the coming of Jesus it was unclear. But Matthew is looking backward on prophecies, and since Jesus had actually come he could now see all of them and how they were lined up to prove that Jesus was actually the person that the Old Testament was predicting. It took Jesus coming, though, for all of it to fall into place so it could be understood clearly. I think the prophecies that are still unfulfilled must be understood in the same way. We will not know the exact meaning of all of them, but when the events happen we will know and there will be no doubt that an event is the fulfillment of something God said through a prophet at least 2000 years ago.
3)Predictive prophecies, when taken together paint a picture of a reality that brings ultimate hope, even though we don’t fully understand. A couple weeks ago I compared prophecies of this sort to the conversations with our girls about Disney World in the months leading up to our trip last year. As four year old twins, they had never been to Disney or anything like it. Yes, they had seen pictures of the castle and played with princess dolls. But there was nothing in their experience that could really relate to Disney World. And second, their language barriers at age 4 limited how we could share. So we did the best we could do to paint mental pictures and build excitement. And it worked tremendously, as they grew more and more excited during the months leading up to our trip. But their excitement was still about a reality they couldn’t understand, and wouldn’t understand until we were hanging with Mickey & Minnie and they were doing the Disney Princess lunch experience in person. I think predictive prophecy in the Bible is the way an infinite God has chosen to explain a reality to His people that they cannot understand and have no experience that can connect. For months leading up to the trip, and during the whole car ride down they kept asking questions, wondering about their experience in Disney. But once there, well, you know. These prophecies tell us a story that ends with God’s glorious presence in a New Heaven and New Earth, creation fully restored, where righteousness dwells. We can’t relate it to an experience and we can’t really understand the language, but God still communicates to us so that we can gather a bit of a mental picture and begin to have excitement, hope, for a place where our brokenness is mended, our sin is finally removed fully, our desires are completely fulfilled, and our joy is full. A place in the presence of Christ, and finding all of our wonder in Him. Until that day, we have little glimpses and the joy of His presence. But it won’t all make sense until that Day!