by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
April 18, 2008
As the preacher mounts the stage to present his sermon, the faces of church members in the audience reflect their speculations about the topic he will give. Most of the children, to be sure, just hope that, whatever he preaches on, it will be short. Some of the adults agree. Others are wary, wondering if he will "give it" to some group of sinners—or, God forbid, to them. Perhaps, some seem to be thinking, he will at least talk about something interesting.
Clearing his throat, the minister begins with some introductory comments about his recent visit to a church in a foreign country, and he keys in on the fine fellowship that he and his wife experienced among the members there. A few in the crowd begin to wonder if the sermon will cover Christian fellowship and unity, and they sigh, recalling that it had been a while since they had heard a message on those things. However, a minute later it becomes clear that his comments were, in fact, simply expressing his gratitude for the distant church's warm welcome.
He pauses, glancing at his notes, then launches into a description of Imperial Rome: the extent of the Empire, the major emperors, the importance of the legions and the Praetorian Guard, and some of the persecutions Rome instigated against Christians. Mentally, several listeners exclaim, "Oh, no! He's giving us a history lecture. What a snore!" They zone out and begin closely examining the maps in the back of their Bibles.
However, his "history lecture" is indeed necessary introductory material, he feels, for his main topic. He is merely laying the groundwork for something far more exciting, and those in his audience who have stuck with him are soon rewarded. He says, "While I realize that these historical events make for dry listening, they help to provide types for the actions of the coming Beast."
Immediately, every ear in the building is straining for his next words. At least half the congregation sits up straighter. "Types! The Beast! Prophecy! He's going to speak on prophecy! What a beautiful day!"
This scenario may—or may not—be an exaggeration of what happens nearly every week at church services. Preachers realize that not every sermon they give will have all of the members of the audience hanging on their every word, and in truth, unless they are truly gifted speakers, their sermons have a good chance of falling on many uninterested ears. Even so, every preacher knows that, if he wants to get a head start in holding an audience's attention, all he needs to do is to speak on prophecy.
Bible students know that Scripture is about thirty percent prophecy, and it is a good rule of thumb that preachers should give prophecy sermons at most about one-third of the time. In most ministries, prophecy topics are given far less frequently and for good reason: Doctrine and Christian living sermons are where the rubber meets the road, as it were; they are far more essential to everyday life.
Prophecy Is Cool
Some people, though, seem to hold that most of the Bible is prophecy, and that opinion, frankly, is a shame. While they would admit that the Bible contains more than prophecy, they virtually ignore the other two-thirds of the Book, the parts containing history and instruction.
Biblical history, of course, gets short shrift from most, who equate it with old Mrs. Jones' tenth-grade history class, a dull collection of names and dates and boring lectures on various monarchs, wars, and treaties. Doctrine is equally tedious, bringing 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, riddles to solve, and word plays to decipher. Moreover, many prophecy buffs believe that the preponderance of the Bible's predictions will come about soon, which may well be true, 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 Is the Beast?" and many other such booklets. First-timers hearing the radio broadcast or seeing The World Tomorrow television program most often requested these booklets. The program itself frequently concentrated on prophetic subjects.
As a hook, prophecy works well, but as a steady staple in our spiritual diet, it eventually produces deficiencies in spiritual health. Yes, we should know the Bible's prophecies. Yes, we should be watching world events. Yes, we should be contemplating how current events might fit the Bible's scenarios. However, we should do none of these things at the expense of studying and applying doctrine and Christian living.
The Purpose of Prophecy
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, bringing His purpose to pass with stunning precision in detail and timing. For instance, the Old Testament contains an estimated three hundred prophetic references to the Messiah that Jesus Christ fulfilled in His first coming. These references range from major proofs like His virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18, 24-25; Luke 1:26-35) to minor details like His burial in a rich man's tomb (Isaiah 53:9; Matthew 27:57-60). Only Almighty God could hone events to such a fine edge; He alone has the sovereignty to control events so minutely.
In the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, we see proof of God's existence and power (Isaiah 40:12-29). During his encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah mocks Baal and his minions for their inability to do anything, let alone consume a sacrifice (I Kings 18:20-29). Similarly, what pagan god has ever foretold anything of consequence? Yet, the God of Israel—the great God of the universe—makes Himself known by speaking a word of prophecy and bringing it to pass hundreds or thousands of years later.
For example, through Jacob, God predicts that the descendants of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would become two of the world's dominating peoples. "[Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations" (Genesis 48:19). About 3,300 years later, the brother nations of America and Britain rose to world prominence as one great nation (America) and a worldwide commonwealth of nations (Britain). Through such divine feats of prescience and power, God declares Himself to the entire world, though most regrettably turn a willfully blind eye (see Romans 1:18-21).
Prophecy also exhibits for all to see that God is sovereign in the affairs of men (Daniel 4:17). He places rulers in their positions (Romans 13:1), moving history along at His pace toward His ends. When translated correctly, Hebrews 11:3 declares that the various ages of this world's history were fashioned according to God's direction. Thus, it is no proud boast but the unvarnished truth when God proclaims in Isaiah 55:11, "My word . . . shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it."
Prophecy, then, is a proof of God, His power, His plan, and His rulership. When we see that God speaks and His prediction happens just as He says it will, our faith and hope are given a firm basis. If He predicts disaster because of sin, and it happens exactly as forecast, we know beyond a doubt that He curses disobedience, spurring us to obey Him in the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 14:26-27; 16:6; 23:17-18). Conversely, when He blesses for obedience, showing He is pleased, we respond in love and gratitude, knowing He is always true to His Word (Deuteronomy 30:16; Psalm 31:23).
This, perhaps, is the true aim of prophecy: as a means to produce faith, hope, and love in God's people. Even prophecy is employed in producing holy, righteous character in His elect!
The Watchman's Role
Does the Bible contain prophecy so that we can know what is going to happen as the world progresses toward the return of Jesus Christ? Certainly, God assures us in Amos 3:7, "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets," but He will not do this to the degree that most people believe. What is written in Amos does not mean that we will have a complete or precise foreknowledge of events.
In His explanation of Ezekiel's role as a prophet, God informs the man that he was to be a watchman for the people (see Ezekiel 33:1-7). Of what use is a watchman if the enemy's advance and all the pertinent details of his attack are already known? Anciently, a watchman would stand in a high place, upon a wall or a tower, and scan the horizon for enemies. When he saw them approaching, he was responsible for shouting a warning to the unsuspecting citizens that danger was near and that they needed to prepare for the onslaught. However, he did not know exact details—only what he could discern from his vantage point.
Once war begins, the most precious commodity is precise and timely information, and it is almost never transmitted in time to those who need it most. The best scenario a leader can ask for is to know as far in advance as possible that his enemy is on the march against him, for this gives him time to make the preparations necessary to secure his people and possessions, assemble his forces, and meet the enemy on the battlefield of his choosing. An excellent watchman just might give him the advance warning he needs.
However, this presupposes a physical attack. A continued reading of Ezekiel 33 clarifies that the prophet was not warning about a physical enemy but a spiritual one. Ezekiel's job was to warn the wicked in Israel to turn "from his way" (verses 8-11). His job as watchman was spiritual in nature! He was to warn against sinful lifestyles, against iniquity and wickedness, and to implore them to repent and live righteously. A companion passage in Ezekiel 3:16-21 makes this plain.
In other words, his role as prophet/watchman—just as a Christian minister's job is today—was heavily weighted toward preaching and teaching God's way of righteousness. It was essentially, like the gospel of the Kingdom of God, a warning message of repentance and an exhortation to growth in faith and obedience to holiness. In this regard, the prophetic hints about future events were, as they are to us, prods to motivate change before the coming, dreadful Day of the Lord.
"Then You Shall Know"
In Matthew 24:36, Jesus Himself warns us, "But of that day and hour no one knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." Just a few verses later, He tells His disciples, "Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not expect" (verse 44, emphasis ours throughout). This is a massive hint that our understanding of biblical prophecy—as much as it has expanded over the last few decades—will still not be enough to remove the element of 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 principle suggests that we will not know for certain how things will work out as the end approaches. We understand in part, meaning we have a vague-to-rough idea of the course of events because of our insight into God's plan, 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 how things seem to be headed from what we understand right now."
The prophet Ezekiel, again, supplies us with a principle of prophetic interpretation that we would do well to heed. More than forty-five times, God uses the phrase "then you shall know" or "then they shall know" to conclude a prophecy or a section of one in the book of Ezekiel. In the vast majority of instances, it is "then you [or they] shall know that I am the Lord," indicating that the prophecies are intended to reveal the true God and His work in the affairs of men.
However, the pertinent point for us is that this more complete understanding occurs after the prophecy is fulfilled: "then you shall know." Until the prophecy happens in history, we are either, at best, completely in the dark or at least uncertain of details of its fulfillment. How all the variables come together and occur at the precise time is among the miracles of God's works that we do not—cannot—truly comprehend. Complete foreknowledge is a prerogative that God reserves to Himself for His own multifaceted purposes.
During the Last Supper, Jesus echoes this principle in His warning to His disciples regarding His betrayer: "I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, 'He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me.' Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He" (John 13:18-19). Even after He gave the sop to Judas, John notes that "no one at the table knew for what reason He had said ['What you do, do quickly'] to him" (verse 27-28). Only later, after instruction and reflection, did they understand how God had worked it all out according to the prophecies of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-46).
This should not dissuade us from seeking answers from and speculating on the Bible's prophecies. Not by any means! However, we need to realize from the start that full comprehension of the prophecies is beyond us until they are fulfilled. Part of the reason for this is that God wants us to be watching and seeking, aware of what is happening spiritually in us individually and in the church collectively, culturally in society, and currently in politics and in world events. For if we had all the answers, we would soon doze off spiritually or spend our time on our own pursuits. God keeps us interested and active by keeping a few secrets to Himself (see "Why Does God Keep Secrets?" Forerunner, January 2005).
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; it is enough for us to know that God will ultimately stand in complete triumph. Instead, He 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.