Beware of Prophecies!

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Interest in prophecy has skyrocketed since September 11. Religious authors aggressively market their prophetic books, and preachers push the theme on their television programs. Even secular publications feature articles on the subject. With the Internet now a part of everyday life, e-mail circulates ancient prophecies with a speed that would mystify their long-dead authors.

One of the most popular "prophecies" being circulated by e-mail is a message said to have been written by the 16th-century doctor cum prophet, Nostradamus. You may have read it: "'In the City of God there will be a great thunder, two brothers torn apart by chaos, while the fortress and doers, the great leader will succumb, the third big war will begin in the big city is burning' (Nostradamus, 1654)."

A different version of this message is also being circulated in which "the City of York" replaces "the City of God." Still another adds the following: "On the 11th day of the 9th month, two metal birds will crash into two tall statues in the new city, and the world will end soon after." There are other versions, but you get the idea. The messages are obviously intended to demonstrate that Nostradamus foretold the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Glaring problems challenge this assertion. The first is, Nostradamus died in 1566! Obviously, he didn't write anything in 1654! But, beyond that, he didn't write anything like the above messages or the several variations of them that are making the rounds of private e-mail lists.

A similar message to the first one noted above actually was written-not by Nostradamus-but by Neil Marshall, a Canadian university student. Mr. Marshall wrote it in an essay about Nostradamus in 1997 to demonstrate how easily his "prophecies" could be manipulated to say virtually anything (Urban Legends Reference Page, © 1995-2001 by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson). Probably, someone carelessly did a word search for "Nostradamus" and pulled up this essay without bothering to read it in context. It was cut and pasted into an e-mail-and off it went around the cyber world, repeatedly!

Even if Nostradamus was a true prophet (and he wasn't), and even if his predictions came true (and they haven't), these factors would still not qualify him as someone whose writings you should read and heed. Why not? We'll explain the answer later in this article.

Malachy's "prophecies"

Another man whom some think of as a prophet is having his prophecies circulated widely. An Irishman named Malachy O'Morgair was a Catholic archbishop in the 12th century. He had a series of visions in 1140, which he wrote down and presented to the pope. For whatever reason, his 111 prophecies were placed in the Vatican's archives, where they were forgotten for the next four and a half centuries.

When they were "discovered," people with creative imaginations claimed that they prophesied the names of every pope from Innocent II through to the present. No pope was actually named, of course, because Malachy's "prophecies" were written in the same type of non-specific language as those of Nostradamus. It's therefore easy to read meanings into them.

You may have heard about a "prophecy" that claims the present pope is the next-to-the-last one, without realizing that it comes from Malachy's "prophecies." Again, failing to look at the man and his messages in the broader context has caused many people to stumble into giving this single "prophecy" unjustified credibility.

The non-specific language of his messages is only one of the discrediting features. His list also includes so-called anti-popes-men who were not recognized as popes by the Catholic Church! As for those who are inclined to say that his list proves the next pope will be the last one, not even the Catholic Encyclopedia makes that claim. "It has been noticed concerning Petrus Romanus, who according to St. Malachy's list is to be the last pope, but the prophecy does not say that no popes will intervene between him and his predecessor.... It merely says that he is to be the last, so that we may suppose as many popes as we please before 'Peter the Roman'" ("Prophecy").

(Lest we leave you curious about what Malachy foretold about the last pope, he only pulled together a few words from prophecies you can read in the book of Revelation. The Bible, by the way, is much more specific than Malachy was.)

In spite of the facts, you will likely hear a great deal more about Malachy's prophecies. A major movie on Malachy is currently in the planning stages and is scheduled to be released in 2002. End of Time features a renegade monk (to be played by Martin Sheen) who tries to block the election of the final pope. The plot centers on this monk's belief in Malachy's prophecies, which, of course, the moviemakers portray as 100 percent valid. The lowly monk must convince the great political leaders of the world of the disaster they will invite if they fail to block the appointment of "the last pope."

Sometimes fiction imitates truth. Students of Bible prophecy know that the Bible actually does predict that a religious leader will play a prominent part in the crescendo of human history at the end of the age. It's a shame that the Bible's message is potentially overshadowed or denigrated by a fraud and a movie about him. (See our booklet You Can Understand Bible Prophecy for a presentation of the truth of the subject.)

That's why we need to beware of (some) prophecies!

Purpose of prophecy

What good is prophecy? What purpose does it serve? If a genuine prophet with bona fide "credentials" walked into your life today and could tell you what was going to happen tomorrow, what difference would it make to you? Why do people want to know the future?

Clearly, after September 11, many people want to know what disasters are impending, so they can save themselves and their families. Where will the next bomb be detonated? Where will the next anthrax-tainted letter be delivered? These are reasonable concerns, but the purpose of biblical prophecy does not speak to them. In one congregation I pastored, two brothers would occasionally invite me to their home to answer their questions about the Bible.

Their questions always centered on the same theme: What's going to happen next in Bible prophecy?

Their lives were not in imminent danger; nothing like September 11 had occurred. Their motivation to learn about prophecy was different. Their interest was similar to that of the millions who will line up to see End of Time—it holds entertainment value. People want to be intrigued by the mysterious aspects and frightened by the terrifying portions of the Bible that encompass prophecy. Those young men learned the basic framework of what the Bible predicts. But, like so many people today, they didn't grasp the reason for Bible prophecy.

Do you know what it is?

In the simplest of terms, its purpose is to motivate people who hear it to change the way they live. It's not intended that they should merely change their investments or their physical location for their own safety and well-being. Neither is it intended to be "a last warning" so people can "get right with God" before they die. It's intended to motivate them to change the way they live in normal times.

In broader terms, biblical prophecy is targeted to the principal descendants of the ancient tribes of Israel. It forecasts their future and, by extension, the future of all nations. It's framed in terms of the unique, personal relationship that Israel of old had with the Creator. As the people of Israel abandoned the covenant relationship into which God had invited them, they began to incur the consequences of going it alone.

Far from being merely an anecdote of ancient history, the messages to Old Testament Israel extend through the present and into the future. Superficial readers of the Bible do not realize that the prophet Jesus Christ spoke the same language that the Old Testament prophets spoke. That is, He preached a message of a personal relationship with God within the same framework-that of a covenant.

The Old Testament, including its prophetic messages, should help us understand how to be a Christian. Sadly, most religious teachers possess and convey only a shallow understanding of its profound truths.

When a man or woman actually can predict the future

In this article, we have exposed two frauds. Can anyone predict the future? What should we do if we encounter a man or a woman who actually can tell us what is going to happen tomorrow? Wouldn't that mean that this person is someone to whom we should pay attention?

Surprisingly, no, it wouldn't.

Read what God counseled His people on this matter: "If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, 'Let us follow other gods' (gods you have not known) 'and let us worship them,' you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him" (Deuteronomy 13:1-4 Deuteronomy 13:1-4 [1] If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, [2] And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you, saying, Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them; [3] You shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proves you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. [4] You shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and join to him.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Do you perceive the heart of the matter? We must discern prophecy from the point of view of where it takes us-specifically, if it helps us to fulfill our covenant obligations to God. It is a tragic mistake to view prophecy from the singular perspective of "will it come true?"

The apostle John repeats the message with the admonition: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1 1 John 4:1Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
American King James Version×

Please read beyond verse 4 of Deuteronomy 13 to find the shocking instruction on how Old Testament Israel was to deal with these prophets. They were frauds, not because they could not predict the future, but because their predictions led people into spiritual traps. Rather than have their prophecies published and widely circulated, those false prophets faced the death penalty-literally.

While we understand that this penalty phase of God's law isn't administered today, shouldn't we take direction from the principle that is so clearly expressed? Beware of prophecies. WNP

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