Prophetic Categories and the Flexibility of Inspiration
by Borge Shantz
By Borge Schantz, March 12, 2014
For the Bible student the first reaction to the word prophecy is something about future events that God wants to reveal. Divine inspiration spoke through prophets who are messengers about future events.
The word prophecy comes from Greek words in which "pro" means before and "phanai" means speech. The messages are generally predictions about soon coming or later events. They can also be guidance on how to meet coming challenges, or admonitions regarding current or event past acts and failures. The messages had divine origin, but God allowed the wording to be created by the prophets with individual style and choice of language.
Of the 66 books in the Bible, 16 Old Testament books bear the name of a prophet. The writings of the prophets can be classified in five categories according to their place in history and individual purpose.
1. Prophetic messages to Israel in the Old Testament: The majority of the messages from the prophets in the Old Testament were for the prophet's own time. In more than 200 instances, the prophecy begins with the words, “the Lord said to me.” They were warnings on apostasy, possible attacks from neighboring countries, famine, pestilence, injustices and the dangers of exile experiences.
The prophetic warnings were given with direct speech. Change of circumstances and renewed obedience were accepted and mercy shown. The prophet spoke to people as a preacher. The themes of the Old Testament prophecies have also been used in the Christian era as warnings of various offenses and apostasies.
2. Prophecies of the First Coming of Jesus Christ: In the Old Testament there are also many prophecies (some will claim more than a thousand) foretelling the birth, life, ministry, suffering, and death of the Messiah or Christ’s first coming. They were revealed up to 1,000 years before he was born. The prophets foretold, among other things, that a virgin would give birth to a boy named Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1). He would be heir to the throne of David (Isaiah 9:7), eternal king of Israel (Daniel 2:44) and High Priest, and finally ascend into heaven. Daniel 9:25-27 reveals the dates of his earthly ministry and suffering. These prophecies were so direct and clearly expressed that both Peter and Paul in their missionary endeavors among Jewish people could use them as appeals to accept him as Lord and Savior.
3. End-time prophecies of signs in heaven and on Earth: Daniel, some of the Gospels, and the letters of Paul speak of signs in heaven, on Earth, and in human society pointing to the end of the world. These prophecies talk about signs in heaven; the sun, moon and stars (Luke 21:25); earthquakes (Mark 13:8), famine, wars and rumors of war (Matthew 24:6-7). False prophets will deceive many people (Matthew 24:11). About 20 negative moral developments will also come about (2 Timothy 3:1-5) and knowledge will increase (Daniel 12: 4).
On the positive side, the preaching of the gospel to the whole world will be accomplished before the end of history (Matthew 24:14). This is an appeal that has inspired Christians to missionary activity in hopes of hastening the day of deliverance.
These end-time prophecies are recorded without much detail. In general, the disasters predicted have to some degree been present throughout history somewhere in the world. The effect has been that in each of the 70 generations of Christians since the Day of Pentecost, they have been interpreted in their own time to generate and expectation of the soon Second Coming of Jesus.
4. Predictions of global, anti-Christian religious and political developments: In the books of Daniel and Revelation, prophecies deal specifically with political and religious forces that fight against divine purpose. The attempts to undermine the sovereignty of God and persecute God’s people in all ages are set forth in symbolic pictures. Daniel (7:4-8) writes among other things about a lion with wings, a bear with ribs in its mouth, a leopard with four heads and a ferocious beast with iron teeth and ten horns.
In Revelation the same kind of symbolic language is used. There are lists of symbols such as a beast with horns, dragons, harlots, scrolls, seals and trumpets. The prophetic language also refers to Babylon. The religious and political powers mentioned in both Daniel and Revelation have been identified in history beginning with the Persia empire (Daniel 8:20) and continuing until the Second Coming of Christ (Revelation 20:1-3). Although prophecy generally points to a final crisis, the foretold evil forces have operated throughout the whole history of the Christian church.
In his epistles, the apostle John uses the words antichrist and antichrists four times. He identifies the term with forces that deny that "Jesus is the Christ" (1 John 2:22). However, the term has become a title for all predicted antagonistic, persecuting and blasphemous powers, each with their own program.
In each generation since the Day of Pentecost there have been a number of different Nero's, rulers, emperors, kings, princes, dictators, and religious leaders who in their deeds and politics could be compared to the characteristics of the devouring beasts, dragons and harlots used as symbols in the Bible. They have each in their own way met the negative descriptions of the predicted anti-Christian powers.
This means that Inspiration has made it possible for Christians over 2,000 years to interpret and apply the various sinister symbols to local and contemporary oppressors and persecutors. In my experience after World War II, I met German Christians who suffered under the Nazi regime and described Hitler as an Antichrist. There are Russians who have applied the same title to Stalin. Today, Christians of all traditions are still interpreting Antichrists in governments, world religions and powerful figures who people feel in different ways limit the rights of or persecute Christians. Examples include such political movements as Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Spiritualism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.
5. Three direct, revealing and significant time prophecies: Inspiration has through prophecy rendered messages in such ways that although their primary function was for a specific situation, they could be applied to various ages and situations throughout history. However, inspiration has made sure that three main truths of importance to God’s plan of salvation are portrayed in Scripture as particular realities at specific points of time.
The First Coming of Christ: The seven years which mark the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ beginning with his baptism, including his crucifixion and, three year later, the inauguration of global Christian missions, are the most important seven years in the history of humanity. These years are generally understood to be 27-34 AD (Daniel 7:25–27). On this prophetic week rests the whole plan of salvation. These seven years are part of prophecy of 2,300 years (Daniel 8:14) which started in 457 BC.
The Great Antichrist Revealed: The anti-Christian powers present in many cultures and eras are foretold in both Daniel and Revelation. These texts about persecution and changes of times and laws are interpreted by many reformers to be a reference to certain actions on the part of the Papacy, which according to prophecies would domineer for 1,260 years (Daniel 7:25; Revelation 12:6). As a result of events around 538 AD the Roman emperor Justinian recognized the Pope not only as head of the only “true” church but also ruler of Europe. This supremacy continued for 1,260 years until in 1798 when the French revolution resulted in the imprisonment of the Pope and papal supremacy was broken. Around that time, religious liberty was introduced in many countries and Protestant world missions really began to bloom.
End Times, Day of Judgment and Remnant Church: Daniel's predictions reached to the last days of history in the longest prophecy covering 2,300 years of history. This prophetic period reaches from the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian captivity in 457 BC and points to the task of Christians in the last days preparing for Christ’s second coming (Revelation 14:6-7).
Christ’s mission with the First Advent (27–34 AD) was part of this prophecy. The 2,300 years (Daniel 8:14) ended in 1844. The “cleansing of the sanctuary” is interpreted to be the beginning of the end times and a reference to a pre-advent judgment in heaven. The prophecy is linked to a movement that would arise and preach the "commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 12:17). After 1844 the Seventh-day Adventist Church had its beginning and soon started global missions, calling people to faith in Jesus and the commandments of God.
These three time prophecies have the purpose of pointing to significant dates in salvation history, namely the dates for the First Coming of the Messiah, the length the great Antichrist will rule, and references to a movement that will call people to the commandments of God and faith in Jesus.
Purposes of Prophecy
Bible prophecies tell us that we can trust the Word of God. They give us hope in our Christian experience and encourage perseverance in spiritual battles. Prophecy has also given us valuable glimpses of both church and world history.
Divine Inspiration has allowed some prophecies to communicate meaningfully to both immediate and later generations, without compromising the message. The eschatological prophecies describe positive and negative events in religious and political history set forth in symbolic language, thus needing interpretation.
This task requires that the interpreter be well versed in both the Bible and church history. It requires that temptations to run ahead of God, or even to make plans for God, are set aside. The experience of fulfilled prophecy is a great comfort and support to believers, providing confirmation of the Bible's divine inspiration. These blessings require humility in asserting private interpretation.