Is it a playground for fanatics or green pastures for disciples?
Although prophecy constitutes almost one-third of the Bible, its importance is constantly downplayed by those who dismiss it as having no practical significance or by those who object to it on the grounds that it is a "fad" that takes people's eyes off Jesus.
A good example of what I'm talking about can be found in the immensely popular best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren.1 He mocks Bible prophecy when he writes, "If you want Jesus to come back sooner, focus on fulfilling your mission, not figuring out prophecy." He then goes on to characterize prophecy as a "distraction" and says that anyone who lets himself get involved in distractions like studying prophecy "is not fit for the kingdom of God."
Such cavalier dismissals of Bible prophecy fly in the face of scriptures like Revelation 19:10 which says that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." Thus, if prophecy is properly taught, there is no reason for it to divert anyone's attention away from Jesus. In fact, it should serve to emphasize the centrality of Jesus.
Is prophecy practical? Consider that all the New Testament writers testify to the fact that living with the anticipation of the Lord's return will motivate holy living. What could be more practical than that? Here are some examples:
The Apostle Paul: "The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts" — Romans 13:12-14.
The Apostle Peter: "The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaint. As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God... so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" — 1 Peter 4:7-11.
The Apostle John: "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" — 1 John 3:2-3.
Prophecy does not have to be either faddish, other-worldly, or impractical if taught properly. Nor does it have to be a playground for fanatics. It can and should be green pastures for disciples.
Reasons for Study
There are many reasons why all believers should be interested in studying Bible prophecy. Some of the more important ones are listed below:
1) The Quantity — One-fourth to one-third of the Bible is prophetic in nature. In the Old Testament, this includes the Psalms, the Major and Minor Prophets, and many passages in the historical books. In the New Testament, entire books like 1 & 2 Thessalonians and Revelation are devoted to prophecy, as are major passages like Matthew 24 and 1 Peter 3. To ignore Bible prophecy is to ignore a significant portion of God's Word, and we are told in 2 Timothy 3:16 that "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" — and that certainly includes Bible prophecy.
2) The Uniqueness — No other book in the world contains fulfilled prophecies. This includes the sayings of Buddha and Confucius, the Koran, the Hindu Vedras, and the Book of Mormon. And it certainly includes the ridiculous nonsensical quatrains of Nostradamus.2 In contrast, the Bible contains hundreds of specific prophecies that have already been fulfilled — prophecies about towns, cities, nations, empires, and political leaders, as well as prophecies about the Messiah. Consider, for example, the prophecy in the book of Isaiah that a man named Cyrus would be the one who would release the children of Israel from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 44:28). And that is exactly what happened 142 years later (Ezra 1:1-3).
3) Validator of Scripture — Fulfilled prophecy is one of the best evidences I know of that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. As I stated above, the Bible contains hundreds of fulfilled secular prophecies pertaining to cities, nations, empires, and individuals. Isaiah prophesied that Babylon would fall to the Medes and Persians (Isaiah 13:17-20). Jeremiah predicted the Babylonian captivity of the Jews would last 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Daniel outlined in advance the precise order of four great Gentile empires (Daniel 2 and 7). The destruction of both Judah and Israel was foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 28 and 29). In the New Testament, Jesus predicted the complete destruction of Jerusalem 40 years before it actually occurred (Luke 21:6).
4) Validator of Jesus — The prophetic scriptures validate Jesus as who He said He was — namely, God in the flesh. The Bible contains more than 300 prophecies about the First Coming of Jesus, but some of these are repetitive. There are actually 109 separate and distinct prophecies concerning the First Coming, and all of them were literally fulfilled.3 Every aspect of the life of Jesus was prophesied — the place of His birth, the nature of His birth, the quality of His ministry, the purpose of His life, and the agony of His death. Consider, for example, the prophecy in Psalm 22:16 that the Messiah's hands and feet would be pierced. That prophecy was written by David about a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. It was written 700 years before the invention of crucifixion as a form of execution. The literal fulfillment of so many prophecies in the life of one individual transcends any mere coincidence and serves to validate that Jesus was who He said He was — the divine Son of God.
5) Revealer of the Future — Prophecy serves to tell us some things that God wants us to know about the future (Deuteronomy 29:29 and Amos 3:7). God does not want us to know everything about the future, but there are some things we must know if we are to have a dynamic hope. Thus, prophecy assures us that Jesus is coming back, that He will resurrect us, and that He will take us to live forever with Him and God the Father. In this regard, Peter likens prophecy to "a lamp shining in a dark place" (2 Peter 1:19). Paul makes the same point in 1 Corinthians, chapter 2. He begins by observing that "no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has the mind of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him." But in the next verse Paul says those things have been revealed to us by God through His Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-10).
6) Tool of Evangelism — Prophecy can be used as a very effective tool of evangelism, as illustrated in the story of Philip and the Eunuch (Acts 8:26ff). Philip used Isaiah's great suffering lamb passage (Isaiah 53) to teach that Jesus is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. Matthew and Peter both used fulfilled prophecy in the life of Jesus as one of their basic evangelistic tools. In fact, Peter referred to prophecy constantly in his first gospel sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-39). He preached that Jesus had been crucified and resurrected in fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies. Later, Peter referred to fulfilled prophecy as one of the greatest evidences that Jesus was truly the Son of God (2 Peter 1:16-19).
7) Tool of Moral Teaching — People often overlook the fact that the Hebrew prophets were forthtellers as well as foretellers. In fact, the prophets spent most of their time using God's Word to spotlight societal problems. They called their listeners to repentance, true worship, social justice, and personal holiness. One of the great recurring themes of the prophets is that "obedience is better than sacrifice" (1 Samuel 15:22 and Hosea 6:6). That statement means that in God's eyes, obedience to His commands is more important than outward religious practices such as offering sacrifices. Prophecy is thus a great repository of moral teaching, and those moral principles are still relevant today. (See Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:8; and Isaiah 58:3-9.)
8) Generator of Spiritual Growth — Prophetic knowledge encourages patient waiting (James 5:7-8); provokes earnest watching (Matthew 24:36,42); inspires dedicated work (2 Timothy 4:7-8); and enhances our hope (Titus 2:11-14). The result is holy living. Paul exhorts us to "behave properly as in the day," because the time is at hand when the Lord will return (Romans 13:12-13). Likewise, Peter calls us to gird up our minds and be sober and holy as we look forward to the revelation of Jesus (1 Peter 1:13-15).
9) Understanding of Current Events — The Bible contains detailed prophecies about the end times we are living in, and there is just no way to fully understand much of what is happening today apart from those prophecies. Three characteristics of our day and time immediately come to mind: the intensifying decay of society, the growing apostasy in the Church, and the escalating crisis in the Middle East. All three of these situations are prophesied in detail in the Bible. We are told that society will become as violent and immoral as it was in the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37-39); that the Church will be assaulted with "doctrines of demons" (1 Timothy 4:1); and that all the nations of the world will come against Israel over the issue of who will control Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:2-3).
10) Signifier of the Season — One of the most exciting reasons for studying Bible prophecy is that it provides very definite signs that we are to watch for which will signify the season of the Lord's return. It is true that we cannot know the date, but the Bible makes it clear that we can know the season if we are aware of the signs that we are to look for. The Apostle Paul made this point in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6 when he wrote:
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night... But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all ons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober.
According to this passage, Jesus is coming like "a thief in the night" for the world, but those of us who are "sons of light" — that is, those of us who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit — we should not be surprised when the Lord returns because God's Word gives us signs to watch for.
Paul made the same point again in Hebrews 10:25 where he admonished believers to not forsake the assembling of the saints, especially "as you see the day drawing near." What day? He defines it in verse 27 as the day of judgment. So, Paul is making the point here that there are signs we can watch for that will clearly identify the fact that we are living in the season of the Lord's return.
Jesus made the same point in His Olivet Discourse as recorded in Matthew 24. After specifying many end time signs, He said, "when you see all these things, recognize that He [Jesus] is near, right at the door" (Matthew 24:33).
Advice & Counsel
I pointed out earlier that in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Paul writes that all of God's Word is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." I want to emphasize again that this admonition includes God's Prophetic Word. Also, in 1 Thessalonians 5:20 the apostle Paul pleads with us to treat prophecy with respect: "Do not despise prophetic utterances."
Peter warns us in his second epistle, that one of the signs of the end times will be the appearance of "scoffers" who will cast scorn and ridicule on the promise of our Lord's return (2 Peter 3:3ff). The great tragedy of our day is that many of the loudest scoffers are religious leaders who profess to follow Christ. Such leaders crucified Jesus the first time He came. They now scoff at His promise to return.
A good example of what I'm talking about is the "Jesus Seminar"4 that began meeting in 1985 and whose work culminated in 1993 with the publication of a book titled, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say?5 The seminar was composed of forty New Testament "scholars" from a great variety of Christian seminaries in America. The seminar met every six months to vote on the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the four ospels. The goal was to produce a new version of the gospels in which the sayings of Jesus would be color coded: red, if He said it; pink, if He may have said it; grey, if He probably did not say it; and black, if He definitely did not say it.
They titled the evil fruit of their labors, The Five Gospels, because they concluded that the spurious Gnostic Gospel of Thomas6 was as valid as the four Gospels adopted by the early Church Fathers.
When they voted on the sayings of Jesus regarding His Second Coming, they voted that all the sayings were spurious and had probably been "made up" by His disciples. What apostasy!
God's Prophetic Word is food for our spiritual growth. We need to take it off the shelf, open it up, and feast upon it — and we need to do so with believing hearts.
The book of Revelation promises blessings to those who read it (or hear it read) and who obey it (Revelation 1:3). It is the only book of the Bible to promise such a specific blessing, but all God's Word is designed to bless us spiritually (Psalm 119), and that includes the Prophetic Word.
Bible prophecy, properly taught, can literally transform a person and a congregation. This will happen if the person or congregation can be convinced of two things regarding prophecy: 1) Jesus is returning, and 2) His return could occur any moment.
Regarding the first point, most Christians believe with their minds that Jesus is returning, but they do not believe with their hearts, and therefore their belief has no impact on their behavior. Regarding the second point, most Christians are unaware that the return of Jesus will be in two stages — first, the Rapture, and then the Second Coming. Because they know little or nothing about the Rapture, they have no understanding that the Lord could truly return at any moment. They believe that many prophecies — like the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world — must be fulfilled before the Lord can return, when the truth of the matter is that there is not one prophecy that must be fulfilled for the Rapture to occur.
Again, if a person or congregation can truly be convinced that Jesus is returning any moment, they will be transformed because they will be motivated to share the Gospel with others and to commit their lives to holiness. A commitment to evangelism and holiness! What more could a pastor hope for?
Bible prophecy does not just relate to the future. It has an important spiritual relevance to the way we live our lives in the present.
Key Scriptures about Prophecy
Let's conclude with a reminder of what the Word of God itself says about the value of prophecy. In this way we can be assured that the effort we expend in looking at the prophetic scriptures will be time extremely well spent.
"The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our sons forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29).
"Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret counsel to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7).
"I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things which have not been done... I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it" (Isaiah 46:9-11).
"[Jesus said] 'Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill'" (Matthew 5:17).
"[Jesus] said to them, 'These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled'" (Luke 24:44).
"Of Him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins" (Acts 10:43).
"The prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11).
"...we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place... But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Peter 1:19-21).