Prophetic statements sometimes apply to more than one fulfillment, a principle we could call “duality.” A prime example of duality is Christ's first coming to atone for our sins and His second coming to rule as King of Kings.
Such dual themes are common in Bible prophecy. Jesus specifically alluded to the dual application of some prophecies in Matthew 17:11-12 Matthew 17:11-12 11 And Jesus answered and said to them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.
12 But I say to you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done to him whatever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.
American King James Version×. Asked about the prophecy of “Elijah,” who would precede the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5 Malachi 4:5Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
American King James Version×), Jesus responded: “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already …” (Matthew 17:11-12 Matthew 17:11-12 11 And Jesus answered and said to them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. 12 But I say to you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done to him whatever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.
American King James Version×).
The disciples understood that the “Elijah” who had come already was John the Baptist (verse 13). Jesus Himself explained that John, already dead when Christ uttered these words, was a first fulfillment of Malachi's prophecy.
But Christ's clear implication is that another Elijah will precede His second coming, announcing His return just as John the Baptist preceded Christ's first coming. John no longer could do anything in the future. But as a forerunner, John had fulfilled, at least in part, Malachi's prophecy.
Another prophecy with dual application is Jesus' Olivet prophecy (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), so named because He gave it on the Mount of Olives or Mount Olivet, overlooking Jerusalem. Many conditions described in this prophecy existed in the days leading up to the Romans' siege and destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But Christ makes it clear that similar conditions would prevail shortly before His return.
Another example of dual fulfillment is in references to the “Day of the Lord” such as in Isaiah 13:6 Isaiah 13:6Howl you; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
American King James Version×: “Wail, for the day of the Lord is at hand! It will come as destruction from the Almighty.”
Verse 1 of that chapter identifies the time setting as when the Babylonian Empire threatened the kingdom of Judah (Babylon invaded Judah and captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.), and it is in this setting that Isaiah wrote that “the day of the LORD is at hand!”
However, he again mentioned the Day of the LORD in verse 9: “Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate; and He will destroy its sinners from it.” His subsequent inspired words, though, show that he is writing about the time of the end:
“For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine.
“I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will halt the arrogance of the proud, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. I will make a mortal more rare than fine gold, a man more than the golden wedge of Ophir. Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts and in the day of His fierce anger” (verses 10-13).
We must carefully examine the context of prophecies to understand their meaning and discern whether the prophecy seems incomplete after its first fulfillment. It is equally important to avoid reading duality into passages that do not support such interpretation.
We should take great care to properly discern whether duality is a factor in any particular prophecy. Often we may recognize a prophecy's fulfillment only after it is well under way or already has taken place.