The Purpose Of Prophecy
Part 1 by Philip Jones
The Bible says this about itself: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
Do we believe that all Scripture is ‘God-breathed’? Let us think through the implications of this statement for a moment. If God actively inspired each book, chapter and verse that we have in the canon of Scripture, then each passage of text has a divinely-inspired purpose, i.e. each passage carries a message that God wants us to know.
This assumption leads us to believe that God also determined that Scripture should contain each of the different types of literature that we find there, for example the Law, the Gospels and the Wisdom Literature, and that each has its own unique (although sometimes overlapping) purpose. So, ask yourself this question: what is the unique purpose of prophecy, as a class of Scripture? It is not as easy to give an answer to this question as it is for some of the other types of Scripture. It is relatively easy to see the unique purpose of the Law, or the Gospels, but what of Prophecy? A simplistic answer might be that prophecy tells us about future events, so that we can be better prepared for them. But this answer does not explain the purpose of the vast majority of prophetic scriptures, which deal with events that have long-since passed. So how might we answer this question? The following are fairly typical responses.
(i) Because the great majority of the prophetic scriptures deal with events from Israel’s past, prophecy is a form of historical narrative, showing how God has dealt with Israel and its leaders throughout their history. Aside from any passing historical interest, any relevance of these prophetic scriptures for us today must lie in the moral lessons being taught. The prophetic scriptures, therefore, are a collection of morality tales, set in a historical context.
(ii) There is no single, identifiable purpose to prophecy as a Class, or type, of scripture. Rather, each individual prophetic text carries its own message, or messages.
It is unfortunate that explanations like these are widely believed, because they obscure the true purposes of prophecy and diminish its importance. This, coupled with the challenge involved in interpreting some prophecy, due to its use of symbolic language (and the complicated debates that rage around different interpretations of prophecy), means that in many quarters of the church, the study of prophecy is very much neglected.
The fact that between one quarter and one third of all Scripture is prophecy, of one kind or another, only serves to amplify the scale of this problem.
The reality is, that prophecy as a class of scripture, does have a unique purpose, in the same way that other types of scripture does. The prophetic scriptures paint a powerful common message on a broad canvass; a message that goes far beyond the simple morality tales contained in specific texts. Unfortunately, because we have become conditioned not to expect any of this, we largely miss what is right here in front of us.
So, what might this message, or these messages, be? And further, how could these messages be relevant and meaningful both for the people at the time the prophecy was given, and for all generations that followed, in spite of all the cultural, linguistic, technological and social change that has taken place?
In this series of articles, we are going to explore this question. However, before we can do this, we first need to understand what prophecy is and what it is not, so that we know specifically what scriptures we are talking about. To do that, we need to understand the different types of prophecy found in Scripture.
2. What is prophecy?
The English word ‘prophecy’ derives from the Greek word ‘prophéteia’, which Thayers’ Greek Lexicon, based on its biblical usage, interprets, as:
‘A discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden; especially by foretelling future events.’
The key fact to note from this definition is that prophecy is amessage emanating from God. Scripture itself is more specific in stating that prophecy is part of the work of the Holy Spirit, as we can see from this passage from 2 Peter:
‘For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man. But men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ 2 Peter 1:21.
It is difficult to understate the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of prophecy. The Holy Spirit:
* provides the original divine message
* inspires the prophet to speak or write the message
* preserves the intended meaning of the message down through the generations
* aids us in reliably understanding the message
* convicts us of its truth
The same can be said, of course, for all Scripture. Prophecy can be understood then, as a work of the Holy Spirit as mediator, through whom God transmits truths to humankind - truths unknown to the hearers and often relating to future events.
However, to the definition of prophecy above we must add a caveat, i.e. for the purposes of this study we will only consider prophecy contained within the canon of Scripture. While it is true that God does sometimes declare, through the Holy Spirit, His purposes and His will, even in this age, these are one-time-only revelations for a specific event, group/individual and time. As such, they are not general revelations to the whole church (and mankind) for all ages. It is for this very reason that they are not contained within the canon of Scripture and are therefore excluded from this study.
3. Are there different kinds of prophecy?
Prophecy was given by, and to, many different people, at different times (spanning thousands of years), in different contexts and for different reasons. One obvious quality of prophecy that we should acknowledge then, is that it is very diverse. Scripture itself comments on this diversity: ‘In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways...’ Hebrews 1:1 A good way of bringing some order and structure to this confusing diversity would be to explore the dimensions on which prophecies differ, one from another. By this means we can discern different types of prophecy. Prophecy can be classified (or allocated to types) on the basis of five key dimensions:
* Temporal direction (Past or future)
* Method of communication (verbal or non-verbal)
* Conditionality (conditional or unconditional)
* Single or multiple fulfilment
* Literal or figurative language
3.1 Temporal direction
At the point in time that God gives a prophecy, He can be talking about past, present, or future events. When God talks about future events, this is known as a Foretelling prophecy. When He talks about contemporary, or past events, this is known as a Forthtelling prophecy. Sometimes a prophecy can be both types simultaneously, i.e. it can both foretell and forthtell. A good example of such a prophecy can be found in Amos: ‘For three sins of Moab, even for four, I will not turn back My wrath. Because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king, I will send fire upon Moab that will consume the fortresses of Kirioth.’ Amos 2: 1-2. Here we see God giving Amos information that he may not otherwise have known, about Moab’s past activities, i.e. the sinful things the nation had done (this is the forthtelling part), but also stating His future response to Moab’s actions (this is the foretelling part), i.e. that He was going to destroy the fortresses of Kirioth (i.e. citadels acting as seats of power and defence). Forthtelling prophecies are greatly outnumbered by the weight of foretelling prophecies; so it is the foretelling prophecies that will be our focus from here on.
3.2 Methods of communication (verbal or non-verbal):
When communicating a prophecy verbally God uses a language known to the recipient. In such cases God may create physical sounds, so that the recipient perceives God’s words using their sense of hearing, or he may speak soundlessly into the mind of the recipient. The former form of communication can be seen in Genesis 33:11, where God spoke ‘face to face’ with Moses, while an example of the latter can be found in 1 Kings 19:13, when Elijah the prophet reports hearing a ‘small’ and ‘still’ disembodied voice. Communication via physical sounds usually occurs when the recipient is awake, while use of the soundless voice can occur when the recipient is awake, asleep, or in some altered state of consciousness (i.e. experiencing a vision). Non-verbal communications can involve God identifying an object in the recipient’s physical environment, for example, a tree or a cooking pot, to which He then attaches some symbolic meaning. God may also put pictures and imagery directly into the mind of the recipient. The former generally occurs when the recipient is awake, while the latter can involve the recipient being asleep or in an altered state of consciousness. God typically uses pictures and symbols in prophetic communications to convey complex, abstract concepts that would otherwise require messages of much greater length. Whether communicating verbally, non-verbally, or by both means simultaneously in the same message, God may convey a message directly to the intended recipient, or to a person or group indirectly, via a message bearer (for example, via an Angel or a prophet). It is this latter indirect approach that is by far the most evident in the prophetic scriptures.
3.3 Conditional and unconditional (absolute) prophecy
In prophetic scriptures God talks about two types of future events: those that are certain to occur (unavoidable) and those that are not certain to occur (avoidable). Unavoidable events are those that are guaranteed to occur because they cannot be changed by any human intervention, ie. they are simply statements of God’s immutable intention, or statements of ‘future fact’. There are numerous examples of this type of prophecy in Scripture, for example: ‘In My Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you may also be where I am.’ John 14:3 All of Jesus’ future actions here, i.e. His going, His preparation of an abode for His disciples (and by extension His whole church) and His return to get us so that we can then be with Him, are unconditional promises (immutable future events) that are not contingent on any post-salvation action by us. However, some of the future events that God talks about in prophetic scriptures are avoidable, i.e. they would only occur in response to particular types of human action. There are numerous examples of this type of prophecy in the OT, for example in that part of the ‘Book of the Law’ known as the ‘blessings and curses’. The blessings and curses are prophecies given to Israel at the time of their constitution as a nation under Moses (see Deuteronomy 28). For example: ‘If you follow My decrees and are careful to obey My commands, I will send rain in its season, and the land will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.’ Leviticus 26: 3-4. In this particular prophecy the occurrence of the future events that God describes (timely rain and good crop yields etc.) are entirely dependent on the correct action of the people (i.e. compliance with His Law). Later in this long prophetic statement (Chapter 26 from verse 14 onwards), the consequences of disobedience are spelled out, i.e. there would be a different (and altogether less pleasant) outcome. The books of the Law contain many conditional prophesies like this, while the book of Revelation, after Chapter 3, contains many unconditional prophecies.
3.4 Single or multiple fulfilment
Some prophecy is fulfilled fully and completely just once. An example of this would be the following prophecy of Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert: prepare the way for the Lord; make straight a highway for our God.’ Isaiah 40: 3. This prophecy was fulfilled hundreds of years after it was given with the coming of John the Baptist, who preached repentance and the coming of the Kingdom, to prepare the people for the arrival of their Messiah, the Lord Jesus. We can be sure that the ministry of John the Baptist was the true and complete fulfilment of this prophecy for two reasons. First, because the New Testament (Matthew 3:3) tells us so and second, because Jesus (Messiah) has already appeared in the world and so there cannot again be preparatory work for that same event. However, some prophecies have what is known as a ‘dual fulfilment’. In such cases there is a partial fulfilment of a prophesied event at some near time, but a final, complete, fulfilment at amore remote point in time (sometimes in our own future). An example of this would be a statement by David in Psalm 40 when he laments: ‘Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.’ Psalm 40:9. Now, this was a real event in David's life, but it was also a prophetic statement, as it described a similar event in Jesus’ life, i.e. Judas’ act of betrayal. We know that these two events are prophetically linked because Jesus cites these very words to describe Judas’ actions. “1 am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfil the Scripture: ‘He who shares My bread has lifted up his heel against Me.”” John 13: 18. The partial fulfilment was in David’s time, the final and full fulfilment came much later, during the life of Jesus. In this sense, the Holy Spirit was using an event in David's life to point the way to Jesus.
3.5 Literal and figurative language
Prophecy can contain either literal or figurative language. Words or text may be described as ‘literal’ if they are best understood in their narrowest and most concrete form. In other words, literal language means exactly what it says. A word or text may be described as ‘figurative’ if they represent something other than their concrete meaning. In other words, figurative language does not mean exactly what it says, but conveys instead a symbolic meaning. Here is an example of the use of literal language in prophecy: ‘if you follow My decrees and are careful to obey My commands, I will send rain in its season, and the land will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit.’ Leviticus 26:3-4. Every word in this prophecy can be understood in its most straightforward, concrete sense. This prophecy speaks of the actual nation Israel, the one Law, physical trees, land, rain etc. The prophecy makes perfect sense; understood in this literal, concrete way. However, when Isaiah announced that John the Baptist would ‘make level in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40:3), he was not suggesting that John would carry out civil engineering in the Judean wilderness. This prophecy does not make sense when understood in this literal, concrete way, because it uses figurative (symbolic) language. The symbolic meaning being conveyed here is that John would preach and teach in preparation for the ministry of Jesus (cf. Matthew 3:1ff), perhaps to prepare the minds of the people to receive Jesus’ ministry, including familiarizing them with certain concepts, such as baptism, etc. Notice how efficiently this figurative language conveys this subtle, abstract and complex message. So, prophecy can contain both plain language that should be understood literally, and figurative language that needs some form of interpretation to arrive at its intended, underlying meaning. However, even when prophecy contains figurative language, these symbols represent future events that must be literally fulfilled. All prophecy is about real events, albeit that these events can either occur on the earth, or in one of the spiritual realms, such as Heaven or She’ol. The reader must discern whether a particular prophecy needs to be understood in literal or figurative terms. Sometimes, disputes over such interpretations can arise. In the next article I provide a simple guide to help you determine for yourself whether a particular prophecy needs to be interpreted literally or figuratively.
Also in this edition of Prophetic Witness
Powerpoint - from Dr Alec Passmore, PWMI President
From The Editors Desk
The General Director's Annual Report 2019
The Purpose Of Prophecy
Signs Of The Times
The Choice - The Bible Or Evolution
Our Statement Of Belief
An Aggressive Green Gospel
From Our Israel Desk
Christ In Prophecy
Church Branch Listings
Insights Into Isaiah
What In The World Is Happening?
Book Of The Month