INTRODUCTION TO PROPHETIC EVENTS
Why study prophetic events?
There is no subject more universally abused, avoided, distrusted, and discounted as the study of Bible prophecy. On one hand, many view prophecy as vague and speculative. This is a great error of unbelief. There are many details about future events that we are not given in prophecy, but the ones that are given can be trusted, because God said it. Prophecy never did any good for those who doubted it. It only benefits those who believe. On the other hand, many look to current events to interpret Bible prophecy, and come up with wild conclusions, like calling this or that person the Antichrist, or predicting dates and times of certain events. Neither of these approaches are right. We are to read the Word of God, and believe what it says about future events, and not look to current events to interpret prophecy, but rather let scripture interpret scripture.
Why study prophecy?
There are many reasons why Christians do not take up the study of prophecy. I’ve personally heard reasons like; “Prophecy doesn’t concern the Church, so why should the Church be concerned with prophecy?” and “All this stuff (prophetic events) will happen after I am gone, so it won’t impact me… why should I study a subject that won’t impact me?” First of all, these are very self-centered excuses. Secondly, there are many excellent reasons to study prophecy:
- The majority of our Bible is about prophecy. Some say 2/3 of the Bible is prophetic! If such a large portion of the inspired Word pertains to prophecy, isn’t it worth our time to look into it? Certainly it is important to God… why not us?
- Prophecy concerns Christ, and if we love Him we ought to be interested in what concerns His glory! “For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). To be uninterested in the glory of Christ would be like a wife who professed to love her husband but cared nothing for his interests, reputation, etc. Hence, scripture speaks with approval of them “that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
- Prophecy, by telling us what is ahead, helps us to know how to live today. It is a light shining in a dark place. “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Prophecy shows us the end of all things; the moral conclusion.
- Prophecy has a purifying effect on us by attaching our hopes to Christ. It causes us to pass judgment on sin and the flesh, because we know judgment is coming on this world. “And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). “Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness” (2 Pet. 3:11-12, see also Titus 2:11-13). As another has said, ‘Prophecy is not to build a calendar, but to build a character’.
- Prophecy is a secret that Christ has has confided to us as His friends. Would we be so cold as to ignore these secrets confided to us by Christ? Would we be so bold as to doubt the accuracy and sureness of His Word? The Lord has told us things to come that we might be well-equipped servants; “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1). But we are more than servants! “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you” (John 15:15). We have an example of this with Abraham; “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?” (Gen. 18:17).
- Scripture pronounces a blessing on those who read, hear, and keep the prophetic scriptures. Where do we keep these things once we have “read” and “heard” them? Luke 2:19 says “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3).
- Right understanding of future events keeps us from error. For instance, the Thessalonians had several shortcomings in their understanding of future events, and it led them to despair for saints who had died (first epistle), and being “shaken” and “troubled” (second epistle). Those who deny the rapture, or fail to see that it precedes the prophetic week, lose the “any-moment” expectation of the Lord’s return. In fact, wrong eschatology can actually affect both our worship and our service.
What is the subject of Prophecy?
Israel and the nations are earthly, and therefore come into prophecy, but they are not the subject. The Church is heavenly and therefore does not properly form a part of prophecy.
The subject of prophecy is the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1:9-11), not Israel or the Church.
“Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph. 1:9-11)
Eph. 1:10 gives us the two spheres in which Christ will be exalted; heaven and earth. In Acts we read that Jesus is now “by the right hand of God exalted”, that is, exalted in heaven. But He has not yet been vindicated on this earth. He has been given all power in heaven and on earth, but “we see not yet all things put under him” (Heb. 2:9). It was in this earth that He was rejected, and it is in this earth that He will have his rightful place. Prophecy discloses the steps by which God is going to glorify His Son in this earth!
Another thing to remember is that prophecy is not “the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Prophecy does not really go beyond the revelations we have in the Old Testament. The truth connected with the Church (“the mystery”) is really a much deeper subject, one that was hid in the heart of God from a past eternity!
The Prophetic Scriptures
Judgment and Blessing. Prophecy was always given in a dark day, morally speaking. Take, for example, the first prophecy, uttered in the Garden of Eden. “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall crush thy head, and thou shalt crush his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Prophecy is always given when God’s people have failed, and all appears to be in ruin. Then the Spirit of prophecy speaks, pronouncing judgment on the first man, and a promise of blessing through the Second man!
The Sufferings and the Glory. The Lord, when speaking to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, reminded them of how the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow are central to the Old Testament scriptures. “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). The Jewish mind tended to overlook those scriptures concerning His sufferings, and focused only on the glories. It was because of this tendency that the disciples were so shocked and disheartened at the Lord’s death. The prophetic scriptures can be grouped around these two subjects: the sufferings and the glories of Christ. Peter wrote of “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow”. The prophetic scriptures speaking of Christ’s sufferings have been fulfilled at His first coming. The prophecies that speak of Christ’s glory have yet to be fulfilled. But the prophecies concerning the second coming are no less sure than those of the first coming! In fact, Peter writes to confirm the prophecies, not weaken them! “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. … And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:16, 19).
Three Prerequisites. There are at least three prerequisites to studying prophecy. They are given to us in the book of Revelation.
- Church history. In the first chapter, John heard behind him a great voice as of a trumpet. Prophesy looks “forward”, but this voice was “behind” him. When John turned, he saw the seven golden candlesticks, which are the seven churches, and the Son of man in the midst of them, judging the conduct of the churches. What lesson can we learn from this? Before John could be shown the way God will bring about the revelation of Jesus Christ (ch. 4-22) there must be a retrospective look at the Lord’s thoughts about the history of the Church as a witness here in this world (ch. 1-3). This is a general principle: we must have God’s thoughts about the past before He will give us His thoughts about the future.
- Old Testament Scriptures. In ch.10, John sees an angel coming down from heaven, “having in his hand a little opened book”. What is the “little open book”? First of all, it is “open” (not sealed) because its contents have been previously available. We find this in Daniel 12 where the prophet was told “do not seal the book”. The open book is in contrast to the seven-sealed book of judgment that is found in Revelation. It would seem then that the opened book is Old Testament prophecy! It has been opened for many years, but now it is about to be fulfilled. The Book of Revelation is NOT enough to get a hold of prophecy. Revelation is only the tying together of the Old Testament prophecies. Many have tried to read Revelation without first taking the little opened book… the result is disastrous. That is where many speculative interpretations have come from.
- A right moral state. John was also told to “eat” the little opened book. When he ate the book, it would make his belly bitter, but it would be sweet as honey in his mouth. When we take prophecy to heart, there should be a twofold effect. First, it should be sweet in our mouth. When we think about the Lord having his rightful place and blessing the world, it produces joy in our hearts. This is the immediate response, and the taste lingers! But second, it should make our belly bitter. When we understand how the Lord is going to establish His kingdom (through judgment) it will produce sobriety. Our conscience will be affected! It will cause us to pass judgement on everything to do with the flesh. We cannot make progress is prophetic subjects – or any subject for that matter – if we are unwilling to eat the book (Jeremiah 15:16). We have to let the moral import of God’s word sink into our hearts and consciences. Then God can give us more light, and we will be useful servants to communicate that truth to others.
Literal events, symbolic language. Rev. 1:1 gives us one key to understanding prophecy. It says that the Revelation contains literal events (“things which must shortly come to pass”) but those literal events were described by non-literal symbols (“he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John”).
Context is key. 2 Peter 1:20 tells us that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation“, that is, we cannot isolate one verse and take it out of its context. We need the light of other scriptures to understand the one in question.
Rightly divide the Word of truth. There is a tendency to try to lump prophetic events together. It is an important principle, not just with prophetic events, but when studying the Bible generally, to be “a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). It is a great mistake to lump the scriptures together and assume it is all the same thing. To “rightly divide the word of truth” is to delineate distinctions in the scriptures. This is also very important to the study of prophecy. For example, many Bible teachers today lump all the apocalyptic enemies into one “bad guy” called Antichrist. In reality, the truth is more nuanced than that. There is an enemy in the west, the east, the south, and the north. There are political heads, and religious leaders. When we make the proper distinction between these key players, the scope of prophecy becomes more clear.
Get an outline first. Paul exhorted Timothy to “have an outline of sound words, which thou hast heard of me…” (2 Tim. 1:13). It is very important to get an outline of prophetic events first before drilling down into the details. God has provided such an outline in Daniel 9, which we will look at in the third lecture; namely, Daniel’s seventy weeks.
Recommended Reading. I recommend the following book by Bruce Anstey; Prophetic Events: Chronologically Arranged from the Rapture to the Eternal State. The book can be purchased here. The material in the following presentation follows Bruce Anstey’s outline very closely.