For the other available posts in this series, click here.
What is Prophecy?
The revealed will of God concerning our future is a subject of prophecy. What is prophecy? When prophets prophesied they revealed the mind of God. Much of what they had to say concerned the time at which they spoke; i.e., forth-telling. For example, we often read “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘tell the people …’.”
However, they often spoke of future events; i.e., fore-telling. This prophetic impulse was outside the control of those who spoke, and they ardently longed to see the fulfillment, and thus the elucidation of the prophecies they uttered by divine inspiration (Matthew 13:17; 1 Peter 1:10–12; 2 Peter 1:19–21).
Where is Prophecy?
The aspect of prophecy (fore-telling) is the subject of our short series. Where do we find such prophecy? It is not only found in books of the well-known prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, but in parts of some of the Psalms, parts of the Gospels, and passages and verses in other Old Testament and New Testament books. These can only be understood by realizing that they are prophetic in nature.
The figure below shows a series of blocks representing various periods throughout the ages from eternity past to a future kingdom on earth. Each curved arrow shown connects the period in which a specific prophecy originates to the period to which the prophecy applies. The upper set of arrows refer to prophecies originating before the Lord’s life on Earth. The lower set of arrows refer to the prophecies originating during the years covered by the New Testament writings. You should verify this diagram by checking the references given. Every prophetic thought in Scripture should fit into one of the arrowed lines shown, except those that deal with the future eternity, which have been omitted. This figure is a copy of that constructed by John Heading, and found in his article as published in Treasury of Bible Doctrine by Precious Seed Magazine, 1977.
Who or What is the Subject of Prophecy?
When man’s condition before God in relation to eternity is considered, two groups of people are seen—the saved and the unsaved. When we consider God’s government of the world, the main subject of prophecy, there are three groups of people—Jews, Gentiles, and the Church of God (1 Corinthians 10:32). In any study of prophecy it is essential to remember this distinction, especially when considering the Lord’s return, since the relevance to each group is quite different, as the Scriptures make clear. God’s purposes regarding these three groups are referred to in Acts 15:13–18. Let’s briefly consider each one in turn.
Israel has a very distinct place in the dealings and counsels of God. The Old Testament is a record of their history, of God’s purposes to them, and their response. Israel is the nation of God’s choice and calling. Their beginning as a nation came when God called a man Abram (Genesis 12:1). God bound Himself to them by covenants (Genesis 12:1–3; 13:14–17; 15:18–21; 22:17, 18; Deuteronomy 30:1–10; 2 Samuel 7:8–16; Luke 1:32, 33), which involve a land with defined territorial boundaries, prosperity, and a kingdom. These promises would be fulfilled in Abraham’s seed (Genesis 15:18; Galatians 3:16) and David’s son, i.e., Jesus Christ. Christ came and was rejected (John 1:11). He will come again in great glory to deliver Israel (Isaiah 60:2, 3; 66:19–24; Jeremiah 23:2–8; Zechariah 14:1–21, etc.). Currently Israel is blinded (Romans 11:7, 8, 25) but God is saving some on the same basis as Gentiles, i.e., of grace (Romans 11:5, 6).
Gentiles are all nations except Israel. In the Old Testament we find that when Israel was obedient to God, the Gentiles were either friendly or subjected to them. When Israel was disobedient, the Gentiles were used by God to chasten them. Gentile nations around Israel have always had an opportunity of seeking the Lord by contact with His people (Deuteronomy 32:8). When Judah was taken into captivity to Babylon (Jeremiah 39:1–10) in 586 BC, it signalled the commencement of “the Times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24), the period of Gentile world power. We will refer to the four great world empires—Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires—later when we briefly look at Daniel’s two visions (Daniel 2, 7).
The Church is not found at all in the Old Testament, as it was still a mystery (Ephesians 3:5–10; Colossians 1:26) prior to the time of Jesus. It is first mentioned by the Lord Jesus as something to be built by Him (Matthew 16; 18) but not elaborated on by Him. The Church consists of those, Jew and Gentile, baptized into Christ’s body by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven (Acts 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:13), and was initiated at Pentecost. The past, present, and future of the Church are summarized in Ephesians 5:25–27. At some future time the Lord will come for the Church, His Bride (John 14:3) and receive her to Himself, in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Most prophetic Scriptures may be assigned to one of five major categories. Prophecies concerning: i. The coming of the Messiah; ii. The rise, progress, downfall, and reinstatement of Israel; iii. Certain gentile nations, and the rise and fall of world empires; iv. The Kingdom; and v. The church. Our focus [going forward] will be on the second, fourth, and fifth categories.
Now let’s consider specific keys to correct interpretation of prophetic scripture. Firstly, it is essential to recognize the distinction between Israel and the Church. As one writer puts it, to fuse is to confuse. The Church is not the subject of Old Testament prophecy. All of God’s promises made to Israel will be fulfilled exactly as stated, both in detail and in time. This is particularly important since Jesus spoke prophetically to his disciples as both Jews (Matthew 24), and as a nucleus of the church soon to be formed (John 13–16). We will talk more about this later.
Secondly, God’s timetable was established for Israel. Both before, and after, the period of church testimony on earth, events greatly affecting Israel did, and will, occur at set times, exactly as God said they would. We will examine some of this timetable in more detail later on. No time period is given for the formation of the Church. When it is complete the prophetic Clock will start ticking again.
Thirdly, if we are to appreciate the precision of biblical prophecy we must realize that a prophetic year is of 360 days duration. Our modern world calendar is based on the solar cycle, and consists of 365.25 days. However, in the Scriptures we find that the biblical-prophetic year consisted of 360 days. For example, look at the account of the flood as recorded in Genesis 7 and 8. Read verses 7:11, 24 and 8:3–4. Rain began on the seventeenth day of the second month, and water prevailed on the earth for 150 days, until the seventeenth day of the seventh month. Thus five months is equivalent to 150 days. Another example is the time stated for absolute power of the Antichrist over the nations during the tribulation period. In Daniel 7:25 it is three and a half years. The same time is given in Revelation 13:5–7, 11:2–3, and 12:6 as forty-two months and also 1260 days. We will demonstrate this truth when we look at examples of God’s timetable for Israel in the Old Testament, and show the precision of prophecy.
Fourthly, prophecy is always fulfilled precisely and accurately with respect to time and detail. Sometimes specific historic events appear to have been a fulfillment of some Old Testament prophecy. However, unless each specific detail of the prophecy has been confirmed, the event is only a foreshadowing of something that is yet to take place.
This series of posts has been adapted with permission from F. J. Hopton, From Here to Eternity: What Every Christian Should Know, Canada, 1999.