I often hear Christians say that the study of the prophetic scriptures can be overemphasized or somehow constitutes “going off on a tangent” to what the Bible is actually about. There seems to be general confusion over not only what role prophecy should play in the Christian life, but also what purpose God had in mind when he decided to predict future events. If the Bible itself is any clue as to what kind of emphasis is proper with respect to the study of prophecy, then we would have to admit that our study of this part of scripture almost always falls far short. In fact, if you measure the total thickness of a Bible and then compare its size with only those books which are called “The Prophets”, you would find that the prophetic parts make up a significant percentage of the overall book. In addition, if you could extract from all the books of the Bible only those passages that predict future events, what you would end up with is about 1/4th of the entire book. In other words, approximately one passage in every four was originally a prophecy of some future event at the time it was written down. Of course, many of these initial prophecies are now “history”, because they have already been fulfilled, but we are still forced to admit that there was an overwhelming emphasis on prophecy at the time when the Lord first inspired his Word.
To simply ignore these sections of the Bible would cause the revelation of God to be incomplete and extremely difficult to understand. Thus, even without considering any of the details of these prophecies, as followers of Jesus we should nonetheless be very careful not to eliminate any part of God’s Word, let alone 25% of it!
Unfortunately, in most churches today the prophetic scriptures barely get mentioned. The old mainline denominations are almost silent with respect to prophecy and the newer evangelical or fundamentalist groups are rarely any different. This sad situation has left the cults or just about any off-the-wall leader who happens to come along with a field ripe for deception. Many false religions first attract their followers by appearing to be knowledgeable about prophecy. Since the prophetic scriptures are naturally interesting, especially in a time when so many predictions are coming true, it isn’t too difficult for the cults to entice people who have never before studied the prophets and are therefore not able to adequately judge their words. Once they get people interested with a little bit of prophetic truth, they devour them with their false doctrines and evil ways. This enticement would be impossible, however, if all Christians had a complete knowledge of the prophetic scriptures. Indeed, the Lord has included a unique challenge within the Bible the likes of which should inspire all of us to change our attitude toward prophecy. It is found in the book of Isaiah:
“Thus saith the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: Ask me of things to come concerning my sons; and concerning the work of my hands, command ye me.”
According to this verse, the Lord wants us to know the future. He desires to have his people understand the things that are to come with such intensity that he makes this amazing statement which should at least ignite our curiosity. God doesn’t merely suggest that we ask him about the future, he actually goes so far as to challenge us to have him reveal it! In the Lord’s mind, knowledge of the future course of world history is an absolute necessity.
Through prophecy, the followers of Jesus have the potential of looking at life from a totally different perspective—not only in terms of obtaining a future life in some heavenly state, but also with respect to the assurance prophecy gives to our day-to-day existence here on earth. The historian who ignores the Bible is limited in that he can understand the past only in terms of the absolute order of events, while the future is dark and uncertain. The Christian, however, can look at the past and see the purpose of God within the unfolding of events, while the future becomes an open book. The Bible provides all the information a believer needs to be confident that the future is under the control of a living God—one that loves his people enough to tell them of the things that must come to pass long before they actually occur. In fact, the Lord promises that he will always tell his people before he does something, especially in those cases where an event will directly affect his followers. This is stated plainly in the book of Amos:
“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants, the prophets.”
At each of the major turning points of history, a prophet was always there to warn the people of the things the Lord was about to do. These prophets not only predicted events that would occur during or immediately after their lifetimes, but they also recorded many prophecies that would not happen until the very end of the age—many, many years into the future. Today, with the completed prophetic Word in written down in the Bible, we can be aware of virtually every event that will occur before the return of Christ. Think of how exciting it is to actually live in the very age that is seeing these prophecies come true. As the Bible unfolds before our eyes, the predictions that were made literally thousands of years ago can become the most effective arguments imaginable to show forth the existence and power of God to a non-believing world. Even in the early church, many of the Disciples of Christ used the Old Testament prophecies of the Lord’s first coming to convince their listeners that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. In the first recorded sermon of the New Testament after Jesus left the Earth, Peter drew from Israel’s past and coupled historical fact with the corresponding predictions to convince the Jews of the truth in Christ (Acts 2:14-40). Prophecy was the proof that Jesus was the Messiah and that Peter’s words were true. As a direct result of this powerful message, thousands of people came to believe in Jesus on the day of Pentecost.
I am convinced that the Lord chose to put the hundreds of prophecies in the Bible in order to provide a logical source of proof on which people could rest their faith. The study of these prophecies is not “going off on a tangent”, but indeed constitutes the very heart of the Word of God. A sincere desire to know and understand these predictions will only bring you closer to the one who can save your soul. In the book that has become the very epitome of Biblical prophecy, the book of Revelation, John records the following words just at the time he was being overwhelmed by the magnificence of an angel…
“And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not! I am thy fellow servant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God; for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
The last statement of that verse is perhaps the most important thing to remember when studying the prophetic parts of the Bible. Prophecy in its true context has its roots based firmly in the Lord himself. In fact, the focus of all Biblical prophecy is not merely to give us intellectual enjoyment, but to cause us to believe and draw closer to the Son of the living God. Contrary to what many have believed, a sincere look at the prophetic scriptures will never cause a person to fall away from God, but will inevitably point him directly toward the person of Jesus Christ. Taken in its broadest sense, the entire Bible prophetically focuses the attention of all its readers on the coming of Christ—both in his first and second advents. In fact, if it were not for the existence of prophecy there would have been no way for mankind to even know that a savior was to come in the first place. How quickly we sometimes forget that it is prophecy and prophecy alone that has taught us all we know about the great doctrines of the Bible. For instance, what would the theology of eternal life be like without the hope of the resurrection from the dead? It was only through the prophetic portions of the Bible that God originally revealed there would be a resurrection. Why is it therefore the church tends to ignore end-times prophecy—could it be because it doesn’t seem to fit into our own ideas of what the future should be based upon our limited experiences—or that it disturbs our lives and interrupts our plans?
The danger of ignoring major portions of the Bible should not be taken lightly. If the only way that God provides for his people to learn about the coming of Christ is through the prophets, then eliminating prophecy from consideration could literally result in missing God. If this sounds like too strong a statement, read what Jesus said to the Jews as he approached Jerusalem at the beginning of his final week…
“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it,
“Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hidden from thine eyes.
“For the day shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,
“And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewst not the time of thy visitation.”
Luke 19:41-44 (emphasis mine)
It was “Palm Sunday” when Jesus made this sad statement. Just five days later they would crucify the one they were now cheering. The people had placed him upon a donkey, the symbol of a king, and as he rode toward Jerusalem they were crying out to him, “Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest”. In a strange irony of history, the word “hosanna” actually meant “save now”. Indeed, he was coming to save, but not in the way that the excited people had imagined.
As he rode forward toward Jerusalem, his thoughts were not joyous in response to the praises he heard, rather sadness overwhelmed him because of the foresight which he alone possessed. As he reached the gates of the city he could no longer restrain himself. The emotions, which were pent up after so many years of preaching and teaching, suddenly broke forth with open weeping. I can almost imagine the surprise on the faces of the people who saw and heard him. The crowd became silent as he began to cry out, “If only you had known..!” Known what? His last statement gives us the answer. If only they had known the day of their visitation!
The Son of God himself was standing before them on that day and they knew it not. Even though most of the Old Testament prophets had told of his coming with exacting detail, the people no longer treated their predictions as being real. The end result of this ignorance was a horrifying judgment that would rip the entire nation apart at its very foundations. The Lord predicted that the city of Jerusalem would experience such destruction that he actually said, “There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2). In fact, he prophesied that this judgment would come upon the very generation that was then listening to his words (Matt. 23:36).
In the year 70 A.D., thirty-eight years after Christ entered the city on Palm Sunday, his warnings came true with unbelievable force. Titus, the commander of the Roman armies which were assembled in response to a Jewish rebellion, viciously led his troops throughout the land of Palestine and ultimately crashed through the very gates of Jerusalem itself. Some historians estimate that up to one million people were killed in the attack, ending in the total destruction of the holy city. The only remaining remnant of temple mount was the now-famous “Wailing Wall” which was originally a part of the structure surrounding the temple buildings.
There can be no doubt that the Jews were judged because of their rejection of Christ. They simply refused to accept him, because they did not believe he was who he said he was. They couldn’t believe, because their spiritual eyesight had been blurred from too many years of ignoring God’s Word. Every person who witnessed the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday should have known that the Messiah was coming even before he arrived. So detailed and amazing were the Old Testament prophecies that predicted his triumphal entry, the very ones who praised him on that day should have immediately recognized him as the Savior and as the fulfillment of prophecy. As is discussed in more detail in the section concerning Israel, hundreds of years before the time of Christ, Daniel had predicted the exact date that the Son of God would be revealed to his people. Imagine how incredible this is that the exact date of his coming was predicted and they still missed it!
If those who were supposed to be God’s people ignored the prophecies of the Lord’s First Coming to their own destruction, how can we escape if we choose to do the same with respect to his Second Coming? We too could miss God. We too could be deceived if we do not consider the Lord’s words seriously before it’s too late. Jesus knew that this potential danger would loom over the heads of the people of the last days. Many passages record his warnings for our generation—warnings that invariably have one characteristic in common: the commandment to watch.
“Take heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.
“For the Son of man is like a man taking a far journey, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch.
“Watch, ye, therefore; for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning;
“Lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping.
“And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.”
In the final week before his death, Jesus taught at great length about what would happen after he was gone. The instructions that he left his followers in those few days represent the last words of a man who knew he would no longer be around to guide them. They are words well worth remembering, because they provide a focal point for every believer coming after him. Jesus indicated that the future hopes and dreams of all his followers should lie exclusively in his return. Only when the Lord comes again would the realization of eternal life actually come to pass. Only then would the evil of this world be forever vanquished. The Lord also realized that his absence would be difficult for the disciples to take, so he left them with the hope of his soon return. As a result of this expectancy, the early church was constantly watching for the fulfillment of those prophecies, which would signal his coming. Even though no one could predict the exact day or hour of his return, the apostles never lost the hope of eventually seeing their Lord again.
However, Christ’s continual admonition to “watch” was something much more than just a final encouragement. There was also a warning present within his message to be on the constant lookout for the signs of his coming. Since he gave no indication about how long it would be before he returned, the only way that his followers could know if that day was approaching was to watch for the unfolding of prophetic events. The danger of not knowing the prophecies was not merely that his people would be left ignorant, but that they could easily become complacent and blind to what God was doing. At the very time that the predictions suddenly begin to occur for real, the very people who were not accustomed to watch would have a tendency to deny that anything was happening. This is especially true for Christians that are not even familiar with the prophecies. They are not watching, because they never learned to watch. They do not know of the events to come, because they were not taught the truth of the Lord’s Coming or did not take the time to read the prophecies on their own.
Jesus told the parable of the man who said in his heart, “My Lord delayeth his coming” (Matt. 24:42-51). The Lord warned of the danger of this attitude, because it inevitably leads to non-belief and a falling away from the Christian faith. This condition comes upon a person slowly and will creep up from within without him being aware. That’s why Jesus said that to such a person he will seem to come suddenly and at a time when he is least expected. The Lord witnessed these effects first hand when he wept at the gates of Jerusalem. In that instance, however, Christ was not coming for judgment, but for forgiveness. How much more serious will it be when the Son of God returns to judge the entire world?
The Apostle Paul echoed Christ’s teachings in this matter, because he also realized the great importance of understanding the prophetic scriptures. This is what he said:
“For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.
“But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.
“Ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor of darkness.
“Therefore, let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be soberminded.”
1 Thess. 5:2,4-6
The metaphor used by Paul that describes the Coming of Christ as a “thief in the night” has been interpreted many times to mean the instantaneous disappearance of the church at the Lord’s return. Even a movie, which is known by that phrase, has popularized this viewpoint. In reality, however, Paul is not talking about the “rapture” here at all, but he is comparing the insight and foresight of a person armed with Biblical prophecy with those who scoff at or ignore it altogether. For the non-believing world or for those who refuse to consider the prophetic portions of scripture, an accurate knowledge of the future is as difficult to perceive as a black cat lurking in the darkness of a moonless night. To such people the Coming of Christ will seem just as unexpected and frightful as a thief breaking into their home while they are comfortably sleeping. The watchful Christian, however, will never find himself in such a state. Since the Bible provides everything required to understand future events, the followers of Jesus should be able to tell when his coming is approaching long before it actually occurs. The Lord may not have revealed the exact date or hour of his return, but he has left his followers with enough detailed information concerning the characteristics of that time that all they need do to be aware of its approach is to watch.
Therefore, to we who find ourselves living in the very generation that has seen so many of the prophecies of the end come true, the responsibility to be aware of what’s happening becomes even more acute. If our attitude toward prophecy remains unconcerned or disinterested, then we run the risk of turning away from God in the same way the Israelites did in Old Testament times. The Lord said in the book of Amos:
“And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazirites. Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel? saith the Lord.
“But ye gave the Nazirites wine to drink, and commanded the prophets, saying, Prophesy not.”
The words of a prophet are often difficult to hear and therefore all too easy to ignore what they mean. This is why so many people have found it convenient to ignore the prophecies of the end of the age. The prophecies of the last days cut through the continuity of our lives and threaten to interrupt our day-to-day routine. It is all too easy to turn our heads away and say, “Prophesy not”, or simply disregard the Bible entirely. The Lord realized that the natural reaction of man was to run from his words. That is the very reason why he left us with the record of ruin that can be found throughout the Bible and which stands as an eternal testimony against those who rebelled. We would all do well to soberly consider that dismal record so that history does not repeat itself in our generation. The final words of the Bible written down in the last chapter of the book of Revelation emphasize the seriousness attached to the entire prophetic word:
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book;
“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
As the golden objects of the Temple were holy and treated with fearful respect, so should we also treat the prophetic scriptures. The person who will honor the Lord in this way is promised all the blessings of God. You will be blessed in knowing that the future is planned out with your benefit in mind, and also in realizing that nothing happens in life by chance or because of some mere mistake. Few things can be more satisfying than to know that we have not been left alone in life. Through prophecy we can now know exactly what the future holds. In fact, the Bible is more applicable to our lives today than at any other time in history. As the Apostle John has said,
“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is at hand.”