What the Bible says about
Prophecy, Motivating Power of
(From Forerunner Commentary)
1 Kings 18:19-21
Elijah is quite instructive here. He began to prophesy in a time of immediate crisis, one that would become far worse before it ever improved. There was tremendous evil to overcome. His ministry took place about 150 years before Israel was to fall, becoming the Lost Ten Tribes, so God was beginning to make a powerful witness to them. Elijah's work was to reveal the true God to Israel in a time of growing national crisis. Elijah prepared the way for Elisha, who had a double portion of Elijah's spirit and did many more miracles. In this regard, Elijah was a type of John the Baptist, and Elisha, a type of Christ. God's pattern is being established. He sends someone long before the real crisis reaches its peak, while it is building.
Elijah says disturbing things. This is a prophet's job, a hallmark of a prophet of God. People like to feel comfortable. The only trouble is that people like to feel comfortable in moral mediocrity. They become "settled on their lees," as it says in Zephaniah 1:12. The prophet comes along and troubles people by awakening them to their sins, making them feel guilty about their relationships with God and each other. He awakens them to their spiritual and moral responsibilities. These Israelites were lethargic in terms of true, spiritual matters.
When a person is freezing to death, he feels a pleasant numbness that he does not want to end. He just goes to sleep as he is freezing to death. But when heat is applied, and the blood begins rushing into the affected areas, pain immediately occurs. Though it hurts, the pain is indicative of rescue and cure. God sends a prophet to people who are cold in their relationship with God—spiritually freezing to death—though they want to stay that way. The prophet turns the heat on, and they become angry with him when he is actually working to make them better. He is often accused of causing their pain.
A prophet's life is not a happy situation. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jeremiah, who moaned and complained to God, "This is more difficult than You ever told me it would be. You tricked me." He did not like the position God put him in. He wanted people to like him, which is understandable. Nevertheless, he was still faithful, and he did his job. Yet, he was in trouble his whole life, from his teenage years on.
There are several ideas as to exactly what Elijah meant by "How long will you falter between two opinions?" One idea is that he means, "How long are you going to hop from branch to branch?"—like a bird in a tree. The bird cannot make up its mind where it wants to settle down, so it just keeps hopping around. Another idea is that it pictures a person shifting his weight from one foot to the other, indicating a degree of lameness. A third is that he is describing somebody teetering on a tightrope and trying to maintain his balance. Whatever the case, there is no doubt about Elijah's intent: "How long will you keep shifting from one opinion to the other?" Their spiritual lethargy for the true God made them uncommitted. Their commitment went one way, and then it went the other way.
Once Elijah began preaching, their conscience pricked them, and it encouraged them to worship the true God. But their carnality and their fear of men persuaded them to worship Baal, because they wanted to be friends with their fellow Israelites. They were straddling the fence in a precarious state of imbalance, attempting to combine the worship of God with the more popular worship of Baal and Asherah. This is typical Israeliltish syncretism, but it will not work.
At one point in A Stillness at Appomattox by Bruce Catton, he deals with soldiers who left the service of their army—either the Confederate army or the Union army. These soldiers would surrender themselves to the other side to be given a bit of favor and put into prison. In exchange, they would offer information about their unit. For a while, both sides—the Confederate and the Union—accepted those turncoats and took their information. However, before the war was over, both sides were summarily executing anybody who did this because those traitors could not be trusted. Most of the information they gave turned out to be wrong, to be lies. Most of them were just saving themselves and making themselves comfortable in their situation. They were not committed to the side that they were supposed to be on. Elijah was dealing with the same thing here, albeit spiritually.
When Elijah preached his message, it put the people in a bind because they knew their conscience was telling them that they had to commit themselves to God or to Baal. It disturbed them. Only the individual could decide which side he would be on, because Elijah made it clear, "God does not want you the way you are. Either you are going to be committed to Him or not. If you will not be committed to Him, you are going to die."
Baal, of course, could not talk to them, but if he could, he would probably have said basically the same thing, so the people were in a very uncomfortable situation. The lesson for us becomes clear, because Jesus says the same thing (Matthew 6:24; 12:25). The Sovereign Creator is not a God who allows His favor to be bought with crumbs. He is a loving Master who only is to be obeyed and served—and only on His terms.
Elijah was sent by God, and he was fulfilling the responsibility of a prophet, to prod the people to whom he was sent to their responsibilities. He was to be an aid in getting them from their state of being merely "churched" to that of being truly religious and servants of the Most High God.
Some become discouraged with the church because we are always being told—to some measure anyway—disturbing things about ourselves. But church is where we come to have our minds stretched and measured against Christ's standard. For one to keep on coming to services and leaving, like a theatergoer, without his options, opinions, or decisions resolved but deferred, is an erosion of character. "Whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).
The sum of what Elijah said is actually spiritually dangerous, due to the fact that God is judging. Christ's purpose is to cure, not merely to comfort, so pain will be often involved when dealing with a prophet.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)
Modern versions replace "vision" with "revelation," but the choice is negligible because God's revelation is the true and most important vision (foresight, discernment, insight) for our lives. The Living Bible paraphrases this verse as, "Where there is ignorance of God, the people run wild, but what a wonderful thing it is for a nation to know and keep His laws!" An old English version based on the Latin Vulgate provides a fascinating rendering in light of what has happened recently in the church: "When prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered." Adam Clarke comments, "Where divine revelation, and the faithful preaching of the sacred testimonies, are neither reverenced nor attended, the ruin of that land [or church] is at no great distance."
All these renderings show a measure of cause and effect. The vision a person has is the cause, and the effect is the way he then conducts his life. Where there is a true vision, or revelation of God, it motivates those who have reverence for it to conduct their lives in a way that produces good fruit - happiness. If the vision that guides is not from God, the people are motivated to "run wild" or "cast off restraint." That is, they will not discipline themselves to take proper responsibility, and the result is they perish - quite a contrast to the satisfying result of keeping God's laws!
There can be no doubt about what vision produces. It enhances our perception of what will occur or be produced if a certain course is followed. Thus, it increases our discernment and sharpens our judgment about which way we should go. If the vision, the foreseen result, seems good to a person, he is motivated to proceed in that direction. When vision and the fear of God combine, they produce a strong stimulus to obey Him. Vision gives a mental picture of results, and the deep and abiding respect for God produces a compelling inclination to please Him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part Two): Vision
Prophecy is both practical and positive, not all gloom and doom. Most of prophecy begins negatively but ends positively because God is confident that what He prophesied will accomplish His end, which is always good! Much of the thrust of Amos is an education for catastrophe. Amos followed Elijah about 90-100 years later. During that period, Israel's sins continued to mount horribly. Despite this, they became very wealthy and self-indulgent, even oppressively so.
Religiously, they were trying to walk a tightrope between God and Baal. They were behaving and worshipping like Baal worshippers but doing it in the name of the Lord. Does that not sound familiar to an informed observer of our modern, American scene? People in high places are claiming we all worship the same God; they say the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are the same!
Amos, a Jew from the southern kingdom, was sent by God to preach against the sins of the northern ten tribes. In those from the north, there would be a natural resistance to such an arrangement. The first thing Amos needed to do, then, was establish his authority to preach against them.
The prophet begins in the first two verses with a "thus saith the LORD," providing the foundation for all that follows. He sets out two things that construct a basis for what he says. First, God and Israel have a special relationship: "You only have I known." This phrase indicates a very close bond, as in a marriage, from which ensues the sharing of life's experiences. This ties what Amos would say to correct them to their responsibilities within that close relationship.
Second, he makes a veiled warning, contained within the next five verses: Amos' words carry authority. Israel had better heed because his words are not idle. He establishes this through a series of illustrations posed as challenging questions that can logically be answered only one way. His aim is to awaken them from their spiritual lethargy. It is as if he is saying, "Think about the practical ramifications of this." What follows is a general pattern of God's operation in His people's behalf.
First: People traveling in the same direction toward exactly the same destination would hardly meet except by appointment. It is no accident that God and Israel have this relationship. This also applies on a smaller but more immediate scale: Amos has been sent by appointment, and he does not speak promiscuously. He is there by no accident. His utterances are not his own words; they began with God, who sent them because the close relationship is seriously threatened.
Second: Lions do not roar unless they have taken their prey because they do not want to scare their intended prey away. Israel is God's prey, as it were, and He is not roaring yet. This means, "Take heed! He is stalking you, and you are in mortal danger. Punishment is imminent, at the very door. Beware, for the margin of safety is very slim."
Third: One cannot snare a bird unless a trap is set, and then something—in this case a bird—has to cause the trap to spring shut. This illustration is declaring a cause-and-effect relationship, meaning, "Israel, you are already in the trap, and you, through your conduct, are just about to spring it shut on yourself. Your sins brought this warning, and punishment will follow if you continue sinning."
Fourth: All too often, the alarms go off, and then people take notice. "Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Amos is declaring that God is involved in His creation; He has not gone way off. The Israelites must not allow themselves to be self-deceived. God is managing it, governing it. His warning of impending calamity would not come if they were not deserving of it. They have been flippantly careless and have no one to blame but themselves.
Fifth: It is illogical to think that God would punish without first warning His people. It is an aspect of His mercy. We can infer that Amos did not choose to be there before them. God appointed him to this task and "caused" him to speak. It is from God that the authority for the prophet's message emanates.
An important overall warning from Amos for those of us who have made the New Covenant with God is that great privileges must not be abused, or they will bring great penalties. To whom much is given much is required (Luke 12:48). Our great privilege is to have access to Him and His Spirit, and therefore have a far closer relationship with Him than Israel ever had under the Old Covenant. Israel's sin was first neglecting and then departing from God and the relationship. This in turn produced great moral corruption through self-serving idolatry, illustrated as and called "fornication" in other books.
The overall effect of these sins produced a careless disregard for the simple duties people owe their neighbors, as well as oppression of the weak. Amos speaks strongly against public and private indifference toward the keeping of the second of the two great commandments (Matthew 22:37-40). When these are considered, we see that he is truly a prophet for our time, when public morality has fallen so low. We need to heed His words seriously because our cultural circumstances parallel what Amos confronted in his day.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophecy and the Sixth-Century Axial Period
Bible students know that Scripture is about thirty percent prophecy, and preachers have cautioned that prophecy should take no more than the equivalent percentage of our study time. With some people, though, prophecy is their Bible study, and that, frankly, is a shame.
The Bible divides itself neatly into thirds: one-third doctrine, one-third history, and one-third prophecy. History, of course, gets short shrift from most, who remember Mrs. Jones' tenth-grade history class as a collection of names and dates and boring lectures on various monarchs and wars. Doctrine is just not very stimulating; studying it brings up visions of long and involved passages in dusty commentaries written by long-dead theologians, intricate studies of unpronounceable words in ancient languages, and saccharine devotional passages with little application in the real world.
Prophecy, though, is cool. Its imagery and symbolism are fascinating with its strange beasts, lurid women, armies and battles, plagues and destruction, conquering kings, and even a red dragon. It is infused with a sense of mystery and expectation. There are enigmatic numbers to ponder and riddles and word plays to solve. Beyond all this, many prophecy buffs believe that the preponderance of the Bible's predictions will come about soon, heightening the excitement.
For evangelists, prophecy makes a wonderful hook to get people interested in God's Word. For years, the Worldwide Church of God's most-requested literature had prophetic themes: "The U.S. and Britain in Prophecy," "The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last," "Who or What Is the Beast?" etc. These booklets were most often requested by those hearing the radio broadcast or seeing the television broadcast for the first time because the program itself frequently dealt with prophetic subjects. As a hook, prophecy works well, but as a staple in our spiritual diet, it produces deficiencies in spiritual health.
Yes, we should know the Bible's prophecies. Yes, we should be watching world events. Yes, we should be speculating to see how current events might fit the Bible's scenarios. But none of these things should be done at the expense of doctrine and Christian living.
What is the purpose of prophecy? Ultimately, it is to glorify God. Through prophecy, we can see God at work in His plan over millennia (for instance, the many Old Testament prophecies of Jesus Christ's first coming). We see proof of God's existence and power in fulfilling the Bible's prophecies (Isaiah 40:12-29). Prophecy exhibits for all to see that God is sovereign in the affairs of men (Daniel 4:17), and what He desires He brings to pass (Isaiah 55:11).
Is prophecy in the Bible so we can know what is going to happen? Yes, but not to the degree most people think. "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7), but this does not mean that we will have a complete or precise foreknowledge of events. Jesus Himself warns us, "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only" (Matthew 24:36), and just a few verses later, He tells His own disciples, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him" (verse 44).
This is a massive hint that our understanding - as much as it has expanded over the last few decades - will still not be enough to remove the surprise from Christ's return! Paul also warns us in I Corinthians 13:9, 12, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part. . . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly." This should convince us that we do not know for certain how things will work out as the end approaches. We understand in part, meaning we have a vague idea of the course of events, but we cannot honestly be dogmatic about any speculative scenarios we devise. Every interpretation of end-time biblical prophecy should be accompanied with a proviso such as, "This is where things seem to be headed from what we understand right now."
It is good for us to remember what the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:8: "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; . . . whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away." The point of Christianity is not to know the final score before everyone else does. God has called us to glorify Him by putting on the image of His Son (II Corinthians 3:18). We must be careful that we do not let ourselves be distracted from what is most important.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Essays on Bible Study
Though our present day rivals Noah's in corruption and evil, this meaning of Matthew 24:36-39 is actually the secondary interpretation. The primary meaning is more simple: Christ would come at a time when most of the world was busy doing its normal activities.
Notice verse 36: "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." This is the subject sentence of the entire paragraph. Verse 42 repeats the thought: "Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming." Jesus rephrases it in verse 44: "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect Him."
Luke's version makes this especially clear:
And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:26-30)
People will be involved in their normal activities, not realizing such a momentous event is about to occur!
Paul writes that "the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, 'Peace and safety!' then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape" (I Thessalonians 5:2-3). Just when men begin to think they have a handle on society's problems, total chaos and destruction will erupt.
Peter reminds us of scoffers coming in the last days who would say, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (II Peter 3:4). The apostle goes on to cite the example of the Flood—which came on suddenly and unexpectedly—as an event that broke the natural cycle of life (verses 5-6). Such is the time of Christ's return.
All of these prophetic warnings include the admonition to watch and be ready for it when it comes. As Paul says:
But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. . . . Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober, . . . putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thessalonians 5:4, 6, 8)
Christ's return will not be sudden and unexpected to the church. We may not know the day or the hour, but we will be somewhere "in the ballpark." Jesus says His day "will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth" (Luke 21:35). But, as verse 34 says, if we "take heed to [our]selves," not being mired down by sin, we will be expecting it.
We are certainly living in times very like those of the days of Noah, so the return of Christ could come anytime soon. Knowing this, our job is to watch and pray and overcome so "that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man" (verse 36).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
'As It Was In the Days of Noah'
Paul says here the reason God reveals mysteries is so that we will obey and that we will be motivated to obey Him, providing us with incentive to do what is necessary. That is why He gives us insight into some of the mysteries of the prophecies. He does not do it because we are good people, but rather He wants us to become good people. This will play some part in motivating us to do what is needful and not be like the Laodicean, who says, "I'm already good. I'm rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing." And so the Laodicean whiles away the time, wasting it when he should be redeeming it. Remember, mysteries are revealed in order to stir a person to good works.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Where Is the Beast? (Part 5)
2 Peter 1:19-21
This warning is very instructive. First, Peter assures us that biblical prophecy is "more sure" than even eyewitness testimony (verses 16-18)! When God speaks, whatever He foretells WILL happen! God's Word will not return to Him empty; it will accomplish what God sends it to do (Isaiah 55:11).
The apostle also says we would "do well to heed" it. Prophecy is vital to our growth! It strengthens our faith in God, teaches us how He works, and gives us a guide to His purpose for humanity. Until Christ returns, we need to study the prophecies to understand where we are and what God is doing.
Then Peter sounds his warning note: Do not presume to believe that your particular understanding of prophecy is THE correct one! He says this is the "first" rule of studying prophecy; it is something we must arm ourselves with at the outset. We must be humble enough to realize that our interpretation of prophecy is probably WRONG!
God's thoughts are far higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9); He does not think as humans do. Though we are surely growing in forming His mind in us (I Corinthians 2:16; Ephesians 4:13, 15; Philippians 2:5; II Peter 3:18), we still have a very long way to go! Paul puts it another way: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then [in the resurrection] face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known" (I Corinthians 13:12). Or, as he quotes Isaiah in I Corinthians 2:9, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him."
We, in this fleshly form, with our limited minds and perspectives, just do not know it all yet!
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
No Private Interpretation
In James 1:22, the apostle admonishes us to be obedient doers, not just hearers, of the Word. One implication of James' comment is clear: When it comes to prophecy, we are to obey the commands so often embedded in the prophetic word. James' command to act, rather than just to hear, is frequently echoed in prophecy, as in Revelation 1:3: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words [logos] of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near."
The "and" in this verse is very important. God does not say that we are blessed simply if we hear and if we read. This is not to suggest that we should not study God's prophetic word; of course, we should. All Scripture is given for our edification and our inspiration (II Timothy 3:16). It is all inspired for that purpose. However, we are to read or hear and to keep.
What do we keep? Do we keep predictions about horsemen and beasts? How does one do that? What we are to keep are those commands that are liberally sprinkled throughout the word of prophecy—in the book of Revelation and in the prophetic sections of the gospels and epistles, as well as in the prophecies of the Old Testament. For instance, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 contain several commands to repent and repeated commands to overcome.
The prophetic word is not just a collection of mind puzzles that we are somehow supposed to unravel. God's prophecies are not that at all, but they are calls for change. They are calls for our growth. Remember, the blessing comes to those who keep, who do what God commands whether or not we understand the details of the prophecy.
God is faithful. A Christian reading this passage a thousand years ago, who had no idea of what we know of history or of the technology that we understand now, could receive the blessing through obedience, just as we can. Again, knowing is not the issue, but obedience is.
The word "keep" is a command that appears ten times in the book of Revelation. It is the same word that is translated in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." We will notice just a few of its appearances. The first three are written to three of the seven churches: Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia, respectively:
- Revelation 2:26: ". . . keeps My works until the end. . . ."
- Revelation 3:3: ". . . hold fast and repent. . . ." [Here, "hold fast" is the same Greek word as "to keep" in the other examples.]
- Revelation 3:8: ". . . have kept My word. . . ."
- Revelation 12:17: ". . . who keep the commandments of God. . . ." [This is written to the remnant of the seed, that is, to God's elect.]
As we can see, God has sprinkled this command to "keep" all over the prophecies of Revelation.
To Watch and Keep
By far, the most important feature of Revelation 1 is its long description of the Revelator Himself, Jesus Christ. John wants to be sure that his readers—the members of God's church—realize, not only who is revealing the future to the church, but also just how special and important He is to us now. In a way, the apostle is adding a final chapter to his gospel, showing us the awesome glory, power, and eternal nature of our Savior in His present role as High Priest and Head of the church.
When John turns "to see the voice" (verse 12), he beholds "One like the Son of Man" (verse 13) standing amidst seven golden lampstands, later explicitly identified as the seven churches (verse 20). John sees a glorious Being who resembles his dear friend and Master, Jesus of Nazareth, but this Person is far beyond human. He is God, in many respects just as the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel describe Him from their visions (Daniel 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:26-27).
John had seen something like this in the past, and he recognized who it was immediately: "[Jesus] was transfigured before them, His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as the light" (Matthew 17:2). If anything, this vision had an even greater impact on John than the transfiguration did, causing him to fall "at His feet as dead" (Revelation 1:17), again as both Ezekiel and Daniel did (Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 10:8-9).
Laying His right hand on John (Revelation 1:17), perhaps in healing or in blessing, Jesus tells the aged apostle not to be afraid because "I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death" (verses 17-18). In less symbolic language, He says, "Relax, I am indeed the Eternal God, but I am also Jesus, your friend, whom you saw die and then rise from the dead. Look! This is what it is like to have eternal life! I now have all power over life and death." Though he remained astonished, what a comfort that must have been to John!
And he passes it on to us so that we, too, might have both comfort and faith in what Jesus commands him to write, the book of Revelation (verse 19). This final book of the canon is not the delusion of a senile old man on a sun-drenched Mediterranean isle, nor the deceptions of another, more sinister spirit whose aim is to distract and corrupt God's people. No, the book of Revelation is a direct communication from our Lord Himself, given in love for His sheep, especially for those whom He calls to face the turmoil and terror of that great day of God.
We have this confidence: that Jesus Christ has ascended to the Father, having fulfilled His every assignment and received all things; that He is "the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth" (verse 5) and more besides; and that He will soon return to earth to set things straight (verse 7). In writing the introduction to his book this way, John has endowed us with the background information and the attitude we need to understand the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it (verse 3).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The All-Important Introduction to Revelation
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