What the Bible says about
Prophecy, Purpose of
(From Forerunner Commentary)
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
Christ relates the Parable of the Fig Tree (verses 29-33) to give instruction regarding His warnings in the previous verses. The "these things" in verse 31 refers to the question asked in verse 7 and Jesus' subsequent answer in verses 8-28. "These things" are the events foretold to happen as the end nears. In the parable, Christ provides the perspective we should have as we anticipate the unfolding of the previously described events.
What owner of a fig tree would spend hours each day scrutinizing his tree to see if it was budding? Would he make the fig tree the focal point of his day? Of course, no one would. An owner of a fig tree would be aware of its location, its level of health, and its progression through the annual cycle of growth, but these matters would not require his all-consuming effort.
The parable, then, shows us that we should be aware of prophecy, we should keep an eye on what is happening in the world, but it does not require—and we should not allow it to become—our primary focus. In the fig-tree analogy, Jesus illustrates for us the balanced view we should have toward prophecy. We must be aware of what is taking place, but we need not be over-attentive.
Some make the mistake—a spiritually dangerous mistake—of ignoring the lesson of this parable by making prophecy a major or even sole focus that distracts them from their primary spiritual responsibilities. It is easier to focus on prophecy and world events than it is to give the same scrutiny to the evils lurking in our corrupt human nature (Jeremiah 17:9). In Luke 21, Christ definitely does not overlook the latter, as we see in verses 34-35:
But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.
With the opening "But" in verse 34, Christ's message takes a definite turn. He is still talking about preparing us for the end of the age, but He shifts from the external events of verses 7-33 to the internal: "take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts. . . ." He is no longer talking about world events, the physical and external, but our "hearts," the spiritual and internal. He gives a warning to those who are not spiritually aware and focused—those who are distracted. They will be caught completely off guard—"that Day come[s on them] unexpectedly"—because their hearts are misdirected.
Verse 35 re-emphasizes that the end will be a surprise to some people, one that Christ compares to a bird snared or trapped. Why? Verse 34 supplies the reason: They are burdened by the "cares of this life," not focused on what counts. They are looking in the wrong direction, and the trap springs on them without warning. Rather than overcoming the world (I John 5:4), as Laodiceans, they are being absorbed by it (Revelation 3:14-22).
Between verses 8-33 and verses 34-35 of Luke 21, we can also see a contrast in the awareness levels we need to have regarding the physical versus the spiritual. For the physical, we are to be aware but not over-attentive. For the spiritual, however, Christ raises the level of vigilance: "Take heed to yourselves," or be on guard! He exhorts us to be in a high state of spiritual alertness.
Praying Always (Part One)
Jesus tells us - within the context of speaking of His betrayer - how we are to approach prophecy: "Now I tell you before it comes, that WHEN IT DOES COME TO PASS, you may believe that I am He." He repeats this two other times (14:29; 16:4) so that we understand that prophecy has its greatest impact on us after it is fulfilled!
God has drummed this principle since Moses' day. The sign of a true or false prophet is whether or not their predictions happen (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). The prophet Ezekiel vividly illustrates this principle. God made him do many strange things, all of which represented points of prophecies, many of which have yet to be fulfilled. God says of him, "Thus Ezekiel is a sign to you; according to all that he has done you shall do; and WHEN THIS COMES, you shall know that I am the Lord GOD" (Ezekiel 24:24).
Dozens of times in Ezekiel, God uses the phrase, "and they shall know that I am the LORD," or a variant of it. In every instance, it implies the subject understanding this after its fulfillment. For example, notice Ezekiel 22:16, where God speaks to the people of Jerusalem about their sins: "You shall defile yourself in the sight of all the nations; then you shall know that I am the LORD."
Most, if not all, of the prophets had little or no idea how and when God would fulfill their prophecies. Daniel is a classic example. Though angels explained the prophecies to him, he still did not understand.
Although I heard, I did not understand. Then I said, "My lord, what shall be the end of these things?" And he said, "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end" (Daniel 12:8-9).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
No Private Interpretation
Verse 1 opens the book with the words, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ." This is the book's real title, not what the Greeks titled it, Apokalypsis Ioannou?"The Revelation of John." In a sense, the apostle John is merely a witness or observer of the visions and sayings that we find within these twenty-two chapters, one who faithfully wrote them down for the instruction, preparation, and edification of the church (verse 2).
Apokalypsis means "unveiling," "disclosure," or "revelation," which is just the opposite of what most people suppose it means. The book is not intended to be a collection of arcane prophecies, mysteries, symbols, and warnings, but an uncovering of knowledge about "things which must shortly take place." As verse 1 maintains, the Father gave the contents of Revelation to Jesus Christ, who as Head of the church passed them on to His disciples through John, so that they would have all the facts that God allowed about the imminent future. God does not desire the book of Revelation to be a frustrating, impenetrable enigma, but as a gift of His grace, a sharing of privileged information.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The All-Important Introduction to Revelation
Prophecy plays a large part in our lives, so a Christian should understand more than just the bare basics. Verse 10 lets us know that Jesus' message—the gospel—is not only prophetic, but it is the essence of all biblical prophecy.
Testimony means "a statement given by a witness to an event." It is frequently associated with evidence presented during a court trial, but it is not limited to that. Newspapers, for instance, give accounts of what people say of some event that occurred of interest to others.
Jesus' statement—the gospel—is the message He preached during His lifetime. It is that message around which all biblical prophecy revolves; it is prophecy's heart and core. Spirit in this context means the "essence" of prophecy. Therefore, anybody looking forward to Christ's return—Christians, the church—should have more than a casual interest in prophecy.
Most of us pay more attention to the prophecy than to the prophet. This is as it should be, but on the other hand, Ephesians 2:19-20 says:
Now, therefore, you [the brethren] are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.
The church is built upon the apostles and the prophets and the words they wrote. They not only prophesied (that is, foretold events), but they also gave the most accurate accounts of ancient history. In addition, they gave us a great deal of the doctrine, the teachings, we believe and after which we pattern our lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Prophets and Prophecy (Part 1)
The angel uses an interesting combination of words, to describe the gospel. The gospel is prophetic. He calls the testimony of Jesus, which is the gospel of the Kingdom of God, the spirit of prophecy.
"Spirit" is used in the sense of character, the nature of a thing. The testimony of Jesus is the nature of prophecy. Another English word is better: essence. Perfume is sometimes called an essence, an invisible, but substantive and beautiful fragrance that is its nature.
Essence means "the nature of," like the word character. It also means "the main part, the heart and core of, the real and ultimate nature of a thing." The testimony of Jesus is the real or ultimate nature of prophecy, meaning that all prophecy points toward the conclusion of the gospel. Everything in God's purpose points in that direction.
When prophecies are given, they speak of things that are yet future and unfulfilled. The testimony of Jesus is the very essence, the heart and core, the nature, of these future events. The gospel, whatever its message, is focused on the future. We then cannot relegate the future aspects of the gospel into a low place of importance without destroying the heart and core of the message that Jesus Christ brought.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!
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