Why did God inspire the writers of Scripture to record prophecies? Could it be because prophecy reveals not only how but why God intervenes in the affairs of man? After all, prophecy discloses many details of God's great design. It explains God's actions in human affairs and how they relate to His revealed plan.
Let's first examine prophetic principles and themes. These fundamentals serve as keys that unlock the enigmas of prophecy. They make it possible for us to understand many aspects of prophecy that otherwise appear isolated and unrelated and to see how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
1. The role of the Messiah
God inspired much of prophecy to relate to the first and second appearances of Jesus as the Messiah. Prophecy explains the necessity of both His first and second comings in God's plan for mankind.
The apostles often referred to prophecies Jesus had already fulfilled to prove that He was the Messiah. But they also often spoke of His second coming. It is only natural for us to wonder about the prophecies that concern His second appearing—advance news that could affect our own lives, including perhaps our immediate future.
Therefore, the first important key to an understanding of biblical prophecy is to recognize that almost all prophecy directly relates to the intervention in human affairs of one key player: Jesus the Messiah. (The words Messiah and Christ are from the Hebrew and Greek languages, respectively. Both mean "Anointed One," one who is divinely chosen.)
Though not specifically mentioned in every prophetic passage, the Messiah is the central figure of prophecy. In fact, a major purpose of prophecy is to reveal the mission of the Messiah.
Jesus made this clear to His disciples after His resurrection: "Then He said to them, 'These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.' And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45).
Without knowledge of Christ's role in these prophecies, His disciples could not understand them. Most prophecies pertaining to the future point directly or indirectly to the mission and work of Jesus the Messiah.
2. The Kingdom of God : focus of prophecy
The prophetic focus of Jesus Christ's mission is the Kingdom of God. During His earthly ministry "Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God" (Luke 8:1, New International Version). After His resurrection He came back to His apostles and "presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).
The Kingdom of God—the focus of Christ's message—is a major focus of prophecy. Almost all biblical prophecy is, in some way, related to the setting up of His rule and authority over humanity in the literal kingdom He will establish on earth.
The prophet Daniel explained that "the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed;...it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever" (Daniel 2:44). In a parable Jesus compared Himself with a "nobleman [who] went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return" (Luke 19:12).
In a vision, Daniel saw how Jesus will receive that world-ruling Kingdom: "I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days...Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).
The apostle John tells us that when the last of seven prophetic trumpets sounds, a triumphant announcement will be heard: "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!" (Revelation 11:15). Jesus Christ instructed every Christian to pray to God: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Luke 11:2).
The return of Jesus Christ to establish the Kingdom of God will mark the beginning of the end of the many life-threatening problems the biblical prophets described. This exciting message of hope is a dominant theme in the writings of the prophets of God.
3. God's objective: mankind's redemption and salvation
Another purpose of prophecy is to urge repentance and offer everyone forgiveness through Jesus Christ's suffering and death. This focus on bringing all people to repentance permeates the prophecies of the Bible.
Jesus Himself said, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47).
Through the prophet Isaiah, God reveals the fundamental problem that needs solving: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Isaiah 29:13, NIV).
God describes people as having "heart[s] of stone"—an unyielding attitude toward Him and His instruction. This hardheartedness leads us to lives of selfishness—of greed, envy and hatred—which bring us ever closer to the brink of destruction.
Bible prophecy, however, reveals how God will ultimately deal with this problem: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them" (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Prophecy explains God's plan to bring this change of heart—otherwise known as repentance and conversion—to all people and solve the root problems that threaten to destroy us. So far only a few have repented and allowed their hearts to be converted through the power of God's Spirit. The rest of humanity must yet be brought to repentance and this change of heart.
To better understand prophecy, we must realize that, although God inspired the historically fulfilled and future aspects of prophecy for the benefit of all people, most people's hearts have not changed. Their attitude and actions reflect a hardened "heart of stone" (see Ezekiel 36:26 and Romans 8:7). To understand God's dealings with humanity, we must not overlook this fact.
The Bible likens God's relationship to mankind to that of a father with his children. Children often disobey their fathers, rebelling against them and choosing actions that disappoint and at times even anger them. But that doesn't lessen a father's patience, hope and love for his children. Keeping this perspective in mind helps us understand biblical prophecies of God, as our Heavenly Father, relating to and interacting with us as His children.
4. Specific dates are rare
Bible prophecy analyzes the past and provides a vision of the future (Isaiah 46:9-10). It often reveals specific events and sequences of events. But rarely does it reveal the exact time when events will occur.
It is only natural that we want to know when and how prophecies will come to pass. Christ's disciples were no exception. When He appeared to them after His resurrection, they asked Him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel ?" He answered, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority" (Acts 1:6-7, NIV).
The principle reflected here holds true for most prophecies. God seldom reveals the specific times of their fulfillment. It is not God's purpose that we know the exact time of the fulfillment of most prophecies. He wants us to recognize the many prophecies that have already been fulfilled. Their fulfillment assures us that God's promises are accurate and reliable.
Christ's disciples asked on another occasion, "When will these things be?" (Matthew 24:3). Jesus listed several trends that have continued from His day down to our own—religious deception, wars, famines, uncontrollable disease epidemics and devastating earthquakes and storms. "All these things must come to pass," He advised, "but the end is not yet" (verse 6). He did not give them a specific sign that would herald His coming. Rather, He stressed the need to "take heed"—to be spiritually alert and on guard—that they should not be deceived (verse 4).
Only the Father knows the precise time of His Son's return. Yet we can understand important prophecies and prophetic principles that give clear indication His return is imminent. For example, the prophet Daniel asked an angel to explain certain end-time prophecies that had been revealed to him. "Go your way, Daniel," the angel responded, "for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Daniel 12:6-9).
This scripture and others indicate that the time of the end will be discernable to God's people, though likely not until that time begins. A number of specific prophecies will be fulfilled in the period leading up to and including unparalleled world trouble lasting 3 1/2 years (in biblical language, "a time [a year], times [two years, the smallest plural being implied by the lack of specificity] and half a time [half a year]," verse 7), which will conclude with the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth.
5. Duality in Bible prophecy
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.
Also, the Bible speaks of someone's descendants as his "seed." In some passages the word seed implies both an individual (the Messiah) and multiple descendants (people of Israelitish descent).
Such dual themes are common in Scripture. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote about "the first man Adam [becoming] a living being" and "the last Adam [Jesus Christ] [becoming] a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45). Paul noted that physical circumcision was evidence of God's covenant with Abraham's offspring, but God defined spiritual circumcision—a converted heart—as the key to a Christian's relationship with God (Romans 2:27-28). Paul wrote of the spiritually circumcised—the Church, rather than a physical race of people—as being the "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16).
Jesus specifically alluded to the dual application of some prophecies in Matthew 17:11-12. Asked about the prophecy of "Elijah," who would precede the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5), Jesus responded: "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already." The disciples understood that the "Elijah" who had come already was John the Baptist (Matthew 17:13). But Christ's clear implication was that another "Elijah" would precede His second coming, announcing His return just as John the Baptist preceded Christ's first coming.
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, 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.
In the Olivet prophecy, Jesus spoke of an "abomination of desolation." Daniel's prophecy about the abomination of desolation was fulfilled in 167 B.C. by Antiochus Epiphanes, but Jesus pointed out that the prophecy would have a future fulfillment.
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.
We should also understand that virtually all interpretations of how prophecies may be fulfilled are speculative to some degree, and often we may recognize a prophecy's fulfillment only after it is well underway or already has taken place.
6. Cause and effect in prophecy
Another fundamental principle applicable to Bible prophecy is the correlation of cause and effect. The principle of cause and effect is often implicit in foretelling events. Human nature is quite predictable, especially to God, who made us and knows how we think. Therefore, God can foretell broad trends—and resulting disasters—based on His understanding of cause and effect. Expressed another way, God allows people to reap what they sow (Galatians 6:7-8) individually and, many times, collectively. He does this for our long-term benefit.
Many of the calamities that come on people are the consequence of their own sins and hostilities toward each other. The prophet Jeremiah well expressed this principle: "Your own wickedness will correct you, and your backslidings will reprove you" (Jeremiah 2:19). However, God sometimes exercises control over the consequences of human activities and conflicts to accomplish His objectives. At times He dramatically intervenes to alter the course of history. His actions—including personal and collective punishments—are tools He uses to accomplish a greater purpose.
God spoke of the cause-and-effect principle to Moses when He gave ancient Israel His law. He inspired Moses to warn Israel: "Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments ... [lest] when your heart is lifted up ... you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth'... Then it shall be, if you by any means forget the Lord your God, ... you shall surely perish. As the nations which the Lord destroys before you, so you shall perish, because you would not be obedient to the voice of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 8:11-20).
Here God told the people of Israel that their future would be determined by their choices. This was prophecy, but it was prophecy predicated on people's decisions. If the Israelites chose to obey God and acknowledge that their blessings came from Him, they would receive His blessings and protection. But if they forgot God and disobeyed Him, they would suffer the consequences that befall all disobedient people.
Later, in two of the five books of Moses, as revealed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God offered examples of the blessings He bestows on people who choose to obey Him. He also lists the devastating consequences they will incur if they disobey Him.
Take the time to study these two chapters. If you carefully examine them you will greatly increase your understanding of cause and effect in regards to Bible prophecies. These passages illustrate God's blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience. They establish the basis for most of the later prophetic indictments and punishments that God pronounces on Israel and other peoples.
The underlying principle is simple: God ultimately, if not immediately, reacts to people's behavior. People of all nations determine much of their own future by how they respond to God and His instruction. King David noted this when he wrote, "The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden" (Psalm 9:15, NIV).
Once we comprehend that God's response to people can be based on the principle of cause and effect—blessings for obedience and calamities for disobedience—many of the misconceptions and mysteries about prophecy disappear. Other aspects of prophecy become much easier to comprehend.
7. Prophecy's greater context
Prophecy is not given or fulfilled in a vacuum. Prophecy provides us far more than a simple list of predictions. It analyzes attitudes and behavior—past, present and future—and reveals God's perspective and reactions. We cannot correctly understand Bible prophecy without some knowledge of the background of the period and culture of the prophet who utters any particular prophecy.
The Bible reveals the origin of the human race and its ethnic divisions (Acts 17:24-26; Deuteronomy 32:7-8). It records the rise and fall of empires and reveals reasons for their successes and their downfalls. It explains the origin of sin and its effect on history. These factors are essential background information to coming to an understanding of prophecy.
Prophetic books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel are filled with history that includes analysis of conditions existing at the time they were written. They contain instruction, correction, warnings and pleas for change. They present options, sometimes vividly explaining potential consequences.
Prophecy cannot be separated from history. It reflects the far-reaching perspective of the Bible. An accurate biblical worldview requires an understanding of God's view of the history of the world and how He influences it.
We need to recognize that God intervenes in the affairs of men to fulfill His purpose. But it is just as important that we understand His perspective. This places prophecy in its proper context.
Prophecy out of context is easy to misinterpret. This is why irrational interpretations of prophecy have abounded throughout the centuries.
8. This is Satan's age, not God's
Another key to Bible prophecy is an understanding of the role and effect of Satan the devil. His influence over the world is so pervasive that Paul called him "the god of this age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). An understanding of Satan's influence is necessary if we are to understand prophecy. The devil exerts a powerful influence over human affairs.
The Bible contrasts "this age" of Satan's rule with "the age to come" (Matthew 12:32; Ephesians 1:21). As Paul explained, Christians must in this age struggle "against all the various Powers of Evil that hold sway in the Darkness around us, against the Spirits of Wickedness on high" (Ephesians 6:12, Twentieth Century New Testament). The past century alone has witnessed many evil rulers influenced by the prince of darkness. The apostle John tells us that Satan "leads the whole world astray" (Revelation 12:9, NIV) and "the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one" (1 John 5:19).
Before God created the heavens and earth, He made angels. An angel of high position chose to become an adversary to God and was therefore renamed Satan, which in Hebrew means "adversary." Revelation 12:4 indicates that Satan (called a dragon here and in verse 9) drew a third of the angels into rebellion. The angels who follow him are demons, the evil forces Paul warns us about.
The "age to come" (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30) will be free of Satan's influence. God let the apostle John see in vision "the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan," being seized and bound for 1,000 years "so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended" (Revelation 20:2-3, New Revised Standard Version).
The imprisonment of Satan begins the prophesied age to come, when "the kingdoms of this world ... [will] become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ" in the Kingdom of God (Revelation 11:15).
With the devil bound, the world will experience peace under Christ's rule. "Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever" (Isaiah 9:7, NIV).
9. The destiny of man
God created man to rule over His creation, to supervise everything, including every living creature. "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Genesis 1:27-28).
Eventually God will greatly extend that rule, as the book of Hebrews explains in expounding on Psalm 8: "'What are human beings that you [God] are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.' Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them" (Hebrews 2:6-8, NRSV).
Amazing as it may seem, God desires to place everything He has created under our control, in harmony with His will as our Creator. But, in our present human state, that is impossible. Remember, though, that Jesus Christ was also a human being. He was once in the flesh just as we are. Today He shares power over everything in the universe with our Heavenly Father (Matthew 28:18). (For more information about the future God has planned for everyone who faithfully serves Him, be sure to download or request your free copy of What Is Your Destiny?)
The time will come when Christ will share His authority with all who become the immortal children of God. He promises us, "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne" (Revelation 3:21).
Our Heavenly Father also tells us, "He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son" (Revelation 21:7). This is the destiny God promises to everyone who surrenders his will to Him.
To properly understand prophecy, we should familiarize ourselves with these biblical concepts. Now let's take a look at God's promises and the covenants on which all biblical prophecy is based.