Prophecy is one of the most misunderstood, abused, and neglected realities of Scripture. In this episode, we offer a simple definition of prophecy and the framework for how Biblical prophecy is expressed and fulfilled. Prophecy is a device for truth telling, sometimes with large chronological gaps and incomplete circumstantial description. The truth of prophecy, we can surmise, is meant to transcend time and circumstance. All instances of prophecy in The Bible have a clear truth that they are trying to communicate.
If I started trying to cover all of Daniel, all of Zechariah, all of Ezekiel, all of Revelation, you know, we could go forever. So this is going to be topical.
Today, what I’m going to do is introduce the whole subject of prophecy, and it will probably surprise you to know I’m going to take a little different approach to it than what has been typical in my experience.
This is the framing. What I’m going to be telling you is how I’m going to approach any prophetic question.
I’m going to do three things today: The first thing I’m going to do is define what prophecy is. If you’re going to talk about a subject, you ought to be clear about what it is.
The second thing I’m going to do is describe a little bit about what I know about how it operates.
And then the third thing I’m going to do is really focus in on the main point of this whole thing from my perspective—which is prophecy always has a main point. The main point is always really abundantly clear. And, historically, people don’t get the main point, and they get distracted off on every other thing you can imagine. That’s kind of the main point of all this.
As we go through these prophetic questions, I’m going to suggest that we should hold most of it with a very open hand because it’s not intended for us to have conclusive knowledge about it. What we should focus in on is the main point which is always exceedingly abundantly clear. And for some reason, humans want to ignore that part and focus in on the other part. We’re going to talk about that at length today.
What is prophecy?
The first question is to define prophecy. Here’s the definition I’m going to propose. Prophecy is God talking about stuff. How do you like that definition? Prophecy is God talking about stuff. If you look in the Old Testament, and you have the prophets, the prophets talk about things. Give me some examples of stuff that prophets talked about.
Destruction of Jerusalem. OK, when’s that going to happen?
Well, it happened once, and it’ll happen again.
OK, but when they were talking about it, was it a present or a future event?
It was a future event. OK.
In what kind of manner do they talk about future events? It’s going to happen.
Is it real, or is it possible? It’s real.
So when God talks about a future event, it’s just real. It’s just stuff that’s true. And, to God, he’s not bound by time, right? So when he’s talking about a future event, he talks about it just like he’s talking about a present event.
What’s some other stuff that God talks about in the prophetic books that’s not future? Give me some examples.
Like what kind of topic?
Following the commandments of Moses.
Yeah, “you are not doing what I asked you to do.: “You’ve got idols. And you need to knock those idols down.” “You’re robbing the wages of the poor.” “You’re not doing justice.” “You’re showing partiality to people.” That’s just stuff that’s happening, and people don’t like that because they’re being told stuff they don’t want to hear typically.
Jonah. Jonah had both messages, didn’t he? He had a present message about what was going on right now. What was that message? You’re sinning! And then the future part? God’s going to wipe you out unless you repent.
So there we have an interesting thing, right? We have stuff that’s going to happen but there’s a decision point; and God says you can choose the outcome of the future. If you do this, I’m going to do that. If you do this, I’m going to do that. We have multiple options being talked about.
Prophecy is just God talking about stuff. That’s the definition of prophecy I’m going to work with.
Now, in this particular series, we’re going to focus on God talking about stuff that is yet to happen. That’s usually what people mean when they talk about prophecy. But that’s not an exclusive definition. It’s just God talking about stuff.
We’re going to focus in on the future part. But he always tells us the future part for current applications. What we’re going to do is not just titillate our interest, we’re going to bring it back to the whole purpose of it.
The big point is always something that has to do with now.
What was the big point about the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem? What did he want them to do?
He wanted them to repent. And he actually said if you will honor your treaty with Babylon, I won’t do this. If you’ll honor your treaty with Babylon. But if you’re going to trust in Egypt, then Babylon is going to come in and wipe you out. That was Jeremiah’s message.
And, they didn’t listen. So it happened.
Prophecy is God talking about stuff. That’s point number one.
How prophecy operates
Point number two. Let’s talk a little bit about how prophecy operates. And I’m going to focus on two things. You might have some other things you want to pitch in. But I’m going to focus on two things about future prophecy, how future prophecy operates. And these, I think, are really important always to keep in mind when we’re talking about prophetic-type things.
Prophecy is not always chronologically linear
The first thing is that prophetic statements are not always chronologically linear.
When we talk about the future, we tend to talk in terms of linear chronology. I’m going to go to the store and then I’m going to go to the baseball game. And then I’m going to come home and mow the grass. Isn’t that how we usually talk about it?
And if somebody said, “I’m going to take Joe, who’s six, to the soccer game. And then I’m going to go to his high school graduation,” what would automatically occur to you? He’s six. There’s a time gap in there, right? And would that sound odd to you? We usually don’t talk that way, right? Where we put these giant time gaps in there.
But in prophecy that happens all the time. To God, is that a big time gap? It’s not that big of a time gap, right? I’m going to show you the most extreme example I know of a time gap, and it’s in Luke 4:18. We’ll start in verse 16.
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.
And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
He’s good at drama. Do you see that?
And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s pretty cool, huh?
Well, let’s go look at this passage. He’s reading a prophetic passage.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
That’s where he stopped. He stops right in the middle of a sentence. What does the rest of the sentence say?
And the day of vengeance of our God.
He just stopped in the middle of a sentence!
When is the day of vengeance of our God going to be? What’s that referring to? The second coming.
He reads a verse, stops in the middle of a sentence, and says, “This is fulfilled in your hearing today,” and the rest of the sentence is thousands of years in the future.
You would think it was odd if I said, “I’m going to take Joe to the soccer game, then I’m going to go to his high school graduation,” which would be twelve years in the future. This is thousands of years in the future.
When you read something that’s prophetic, what do you always have to keep in mind? What’s the point? There may be gaps. It’s not chronologically linear necessarily.
What does that mean about trying to construct a very clear analysis of the circumstances that are going to take place in the future? It’s very difficult. It’s going to be very difficult. If you lock in on that, you’re going to miss some things. We’re going to see that in spades here in a minute.
The first thing to understand about the way prophecy is—which we defined as God talking about stuff—is that it can be present, past, or future. We’re going to focus on the future in this segment. So the first thing is God talking about stuff, that’s prophecy.
How it operates: The first thing about how it operates is it’s not necessarily chronologically linear. There can be big gaps.
God doesn’t tell us everything
The second thing about how it operates is that God often leaves stuff out.
Let’s look at Mark 4:11. I’ll start in verse 10. But when He was alone—that’s Jesus—those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.
And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that
‘Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15:51.
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—
What’s a mystery? Something you don’t understand. Something that was not previously revealed. You watch a mystery movie, and they give you little clues all the way through, and then all the sudden, boom! Here’s the piece of information you didn’t know, and now you understand it.
God reveals things in such a way that it’s not clear what’s happening to a lot of people. God withholds information.
Paul calls the church, what? A mystery. A mystery that wasn’t revealed. He says the prophets of old longed to understand this. And now it’s being revealed, this great mystery. God didn’t reveal it.
If God didn’t reveal that, what does that tell us about the other stuff he’s revealed about what’s yet to happen? We can assume, probably, he hasn’t told us everything about it, right?
We’re going to studyabout the new earth and what the Bible tells us about the new earth. We don’t have hardly any information on the new earth. Most of it’s unknown. I think we can make some really educated speculations about the new earth, but that’s all they are.
He tells us it’s a really great place to be, and we want to be there. We get the main point.
So the first point is prophecy is just God talking about stuff. The second point, how it operates. The two major things—and there’s a lot of other stuff: It’s not necessarily chronologically linear, and God leaves stuff out. He doesn’t talk about everything all at once. If he did talk about everything all at once, could we possibly understand any of it?
Did you tell your kids everything at a young age? Like when they ask, “Where do babies come from?” Did you tell them everything?
And would you want to know how your death’s going to come about? Would you want to know that? “It’s going to be on this day.” A lot of times information left out is greatly to our benefit.
So, God talking about stuff, not chronologically linear, and he’s leaving stuff out.
God makes the main point clear
The third point that I want to talk about is that the big points are always clear. When God talks about something prophetic, he always makes the main point so that anybody can understand it.
People like a prophetic system
People just tend to overlook that and go to building a system. Now why would we want to do that?
Because it makes us feel comfortable.
Why does it make you feel comfortable?
Because we know what to expect.
You know, that’s great. When we have a set of circumstances or a set of rules, we automatically feel empowered, because, why?
We can control it!
I mean, your child, when they’re young—any child when they’re young—the minute they hear a rule, what do they automatically start doing? They start looking for loopholes, right? Immediately. It’s just built in.
If we can know what the future circumstances are, then we can find a way around it.
How much sense does that make, really? God is going to build a system that we can manipulate to our own benefit. Really?
We do tend to have very simplistic cause-effect explanations for things.
Actually in our culture, the politicians use this all the time. This event is making that happen, and if you have any kind of systemic knowledge at all, you look at it and say, “What?!” And people buy it because people prefer simple explanations.
There’s a really amazing book that I’ve read, and they’ve actually experimented on this. When there’s a complex situation, people will substitute an easy problem for a hard problem because it makes them feel more comfortable. It’s kind of an established analysis that they have.
We tend to do this.
But what God is trying to get us to do is go beyond that and see the big point. As we do these prophetic questions, I’m going to do something that is completely out of step with most of the prophetic stuff that I’ve heard. Most of the prophetic stuff that I’ve heard is—somebody has a very concrete established sequence of events; and they’re defending that system, and they’re knocking down this guy’s system that has a different sequence of events.
I think some things are pretty clear. We’ll talk about that. I think it’s fun to talk about those things.
The Pharisees’ prophetic system caused them to miss the main point
But we don’t want to do what the Pharisees did. The Pharisees really understood prophecy, and they had a lot of it right. And they had it so well set down and such a good system that they missed the point of the whole thing. Let’s go look at that. Let’s look at John chapter 5. We’re going to spend most of the rest of our time in John.
The Jews missing Jesus in the scriptures
I’d never really seen this before but it seems that John kind of specializes on the topic of the Jews missing Jesus in the scriptures.
John 5:38. But you do not have His word abiding in you—
It’s real interesting. He’s talking to people who knew the entire Bible by heart, probably have known the entire Bible by heart since the age of 15 or so. Word for word.
Their AWANA program wasn’t, “Choose one verse from this chapter and memorize it,” and then forget it two weeks later. Their AWANA program was, “OK, today, Tom, we’re going to do Deuteronomy. Go.” How would you like to be the listener for that program?
Then he says this amazing thing: You search the Scriptures—
That is actually a very complimentary term, isn’t it? How many people would be offended by Jesus saying to you, “You search the scriptures”? That’s very complimentary, don’t you think? These people searched the scriptures. These were the people who really studied the Bible.
Now did they have a reason to really search the scriptures?
—for in them you think you have eternal life—
Anything wrong with that?
Eternal life. Now, remember, when you see the phrase “eternal life,” it does not mean “go to heaven when you die” only. For a Jew, that would have been presumed. The Jews came to Jesus and said, “What did you mean? We’re children of Abraham. What do you mean be born again? What are you talking about? We’re the chosen ones! It’s automatic!”
They didn’t have an eternal security problem. They had the other problem.
—and these are they which testify of Me.
Where’s eternal life in the scriptures? Jesus! The scriptures are pointing to Jesus! And I’m the means by which you get eternal life. And you’re not willing to come to me that you may have life.
I’m going to paraphrase this: You’re searching the scriptures trying to get eternal life and missing the whole point. You totally missed the point.
They got all kinds of things out of the scriptures, didn’t they? They got how to do the Sabbath. They got a whole list of qualifications for the Messiah. But they missed the point.
As we talk about prophetic questions, what we’re going to try really hard to do is not miss the point.
Prophecy’s there for our benefit so we can know God, so we can have hope, so we can repent, so we can understand the gravity of today’s decisions.
We’re given some information about what’s actually going to happen. It’s not there for us to construct a Lego deal that we can control.
Luke 24:44. On the road to Emmaus, Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”
Then in verse 46 he says, Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day,
I’ve looked through the law of Moses, through the Psalms, and through the Prophets, and there’s no literal verse that comes out and says the Messiah’s going to die, be buried and raised from the dead the third day. And so, these people on the road to Emmaus would have been, like you said, very familiar with the scriptures on the literal level. But perhaps he was talking about through the life of Joseph, through the lives of these people, the history of it; and it’s an allegory that the Messiah was going to die and rise from the dead the third day. I haven’t found a verse that just comes out explicitly and says the Messiah’s going to come.
That’s a good point. So, if we’ve got this big, big thing like this, then maybe there’s some mystery about what’s in front of us too. As a matter of fact, I think we can expect that.