Many Christians need an overview of prophecy, to put prophecy into perspective. That is because many Christians overemphasize prophecy and make claims about prophecy that cannot be substantiated. For some, prophecy is the most important doctrine. That is what occupies most of their Bible study, and that is the subject they want to hear about the most. Armageddon fiction sells well. Many Christians would do well to notice the real purpose of prophecy.
Bible prophecy reveals God and his will and purpose for humanity. In Bible prophecy, God declares that human sinfulness is forgiven through repentance and faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Prophecy proclaims God as Sovereign Creator and Judge of all, it assures humanity of his love, mercy, and faithfulness, and it motivates the believer to live a godly life in Jesus Christ.
The above paragraph has three sentences. The first one says that prophecy is part of God’s revelation to us, and it tells us something about who he is, what he is like, what he wants and what he is doing. The second sentence says that Bible prophecy announces salvation through Jesus Christ. It does not say that all prophecy is concerned with forgiveness and faith in Christ. Nor does it say that prophecy is the only place that God reveals these things about salvation. We could say that prophecy is one of the many ways in which God reveals forgiveness through Christ.
Since God’s plan centers on Jesus Christ, and prophecy is part of God’s revelation of his will, it is inevitable that prophecy relates, either directly or indirectly, to what he is doing in and through Jesus Christ. (We are not trying to pinpoint every prophecy here — we are giving an overview.) The most important thing about prophecy is not about nations, and not about the future — it is about repentance, faith, salvation, and life right now.
If we took a survey in most denominations, I doubt that many people would say that prophecy is about forgiveness and faith. They think it is focused on other things. But prophecy is about salvation through Christ, as well as a number of other things. When millions are looking to Bible prophecy to discern the end of the world, when millions always associate prophecy with events still future, it is helpful to remind people that one purpose of prophecy is to reveal that human sinfulness can be forgiven through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Human sinfulness can be forgiven. I am referring to the fundamental condition of humanity, not just the individual results of our sinfulness. It is true that individual sins are forgiven, but it is even more important that our flawed nature, which is the root of the problem, is also forgiven. We will never have the time nor the wisdom to repent of every sin. Forgiveness does not depend on our ability to itemize them all. Rather, what Christ makes possible for us is that all of them, and our sinful nature at its core, can all be forgiven in one fell swoop.
Next, we note that our sinfulness is forgiven through faith and repentance. We have assurance that our sins are forgiven, on the basis of what Christ has done. The coming of Jesus to rescue us from our sinfulness was prophesied in the Old Testament; this is something that prophecy is about. Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin.
People can experience forgiveness simply through faith in Christ, without having any precise beliefs about how Christ is able to forgive us. No particular theory about Christ’s atoning death is required. No special beliefs about his role as mediator are required for salvation. However, the New Testament teaches that our salvation is made possible through the death of Christ on the cross, and that he is our High Priest interceding for us. When we believe that what Jesus did is effective for our salvation, then we experience forgiveness. We acknowledge and worship him as Savior and Lord. We realize that he accepts us in his love and grace and we accept his wonderful gift of salvation.
Prophecy is concerned with our salvation. We find evidence for that in Luke 24. There, the resurrected Jesus is explaining things to two disciples on the road to Emmaus:
Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”… Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Jesus did not say that the Scriptures spoke only of him, or that every single prophecy was about him. He didn’t have time to cover the entire Old Testament. Some prophecies were about him, and some were about him only indirectly. Jesus explained the prophecies that were most directly about him. The disciples believed some of what the prophets had written, but they were slow of heart to believe it all. They were missing part of the story, and Jesus filled them in and explained it to them. Even though some prophecies were about Edom, Moab, Assyria, or Egypt, and some about Israel, other prophecies were about the suffering and death of the Messiah, and his resurrection to glory. Jesus explained these to his disciples.
Jesus began with the books of Moses. They have some messianic prophecies in them, but most of the Pentateuch is about Jesus in a different way — in terms of typology, in the rituals of sacrifice and priesthood that prefigured the work of the Messiah. Jesus explained these concepts, too.
Verse 44 tells us more:
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Again, he did not say that every single detail was about him. What he said is that the parts that were about him had to be fulfilled. We could add that not everything had to be fulfilled in his first coming. Some prophecies seem to point to the future, to his return, but like he said, they must be fulfilled. Not just prophecy pointed to him — the Law also pointed to him, and the Psalms pointed to him and the work he would do for our salvation.
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (verses 45-48)
Here Jesus explains more prophecies concerning himself. Prophecy was pointing not only to the Messiah’s suffering, death, and resurrection — prophecy also pointed to the message of repentance and forgiveness, a message that would be preached to all nations.
Prophecy touches on many things, but the main thing it is about, the most important thing it reveals, is that we can be forgiven through the death of the Messiah. Jesus highlighted this purpose of prophecy on the road to Emmaus. If we are interested in prophecy, we should be sure not to miss this. If we don’t get this part of the message, it won’t do us any good to get anything else.
It is interesting to read Revelation 19:10 with that in mind: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” The message about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. That is what prophecy is all about. The essence of prophecy is Jesus Christ.
Three more purposes
Our third sentence adds several more details: “Prophecy proclaims God as Sovereign Creator and Judge of all, assures humanity of his love, mercy, and faithfulness, and motivates the believer to live a godly life in Jesus Christ.” Here are three more purposes of prophecy. First, God is Sovereign Judge of all. Second, God is loving, merciful and faithful. Third, prophecy motivates us to live right. Let’s look at these three.
Bible prophecy tells us that God is sovereign, that he has authority and power over all things. Isaiah 46:9-11 supports this point:
Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, [I make known] what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. From the east I summon a bird of prey; from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose. What I have said, that will I bring about; what I have planned, that will I do.
God is saying that he can tell us how everything ends up, even when it is only starting. Only God can make the end known even when he is in the beginning. Even in ancient times, he was able to make predictions about what would happen in the future.
Some people say that God can do this because he sees the future. It’s true that God knows the future, but that isn’t Isaiah’s point here. What Isaiah is bringing out is not so much that God sees or knows in advance, but that God will intervene in history to make sure that it happens. He will bring it about, even though he may call upon someone from the east, in this case, to do the work.
God makes his plan known in advance, and that revelation is what we call prophecy — something said in advance about what is going to happen. So prophecy is part of God’s revelation of his will and purpose. Then, because it is God’s will, his plan, his desire, he makes sure that it happens. He will do everything he wants to do, because he has the power to do that. He is sovereign over all nations.
Daniel 4:17 tells us the same thing. Just after Daniel announces that King Nebuchadnezzar will be insane for seven years, he gives this reason:
The decision is announced by messengers, the holy ones declare the verdict, so that the living may know that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes and sets over them the lowliest of people.
This prophecy was given and carried out so that we would know that God is sovereign over all nations. He has the power to set someone up as ruler, even the most unlikely of people. God can give it to whomever he wants, because he is sovereign. That is one message conveyed to us by Bible prophecy. It shows that he has all power.
Prophecy tells us that God is Judge. We can see that in many of the Old Testament prophecies, particular prophecies of punishment. God is bringing unpleasant consequences because the people have done bad things. God is acting as a judge, with the power to reward and the power to punish, and the power to make sure that it is done.
Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14-15)
Here the New Testament is quoting a prophecy that is not in the Old Testament. This prophecy is in the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch, and it has become part of the inspired record as to what prophecy reveals. It reveals that the Lord is coming and that he is a judge of every nation.
Love, mercy, faithfulness
Bible prophecy reveals something about what God plans and what he does, and it is therefore inevitable that it reveals to us something about his character. His purposes and plans will inevitably reveal that he is loving, merciful, and faithful. I think here of Jeremiah 26:13 — “Reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you.” If the people change, then God will change. He is not anxious to punish; he is willing to wipe the slate clean. He does not keep grudges – he is merciful and willing to forgive.
As an example of his faithfulness, we can look at the prophecy in Leviticus 26:44. The passage is a warning to Israel that if they broke the covenant, they would be conquered and taken into captivity. But then this assurance is added: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely.” This prophecy is highlighting God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love, even without using those specific words.
Hosea 11 is another example of God’s faithful love. After describing how unfaithful Israel has been, verses 8-9 say, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” This prophecy is showing God’s persistent love for his people.
New Testament prophecies also assure us that God is loving, merciful and faithful. He will resurrect us and reward us. We will live with him and enjoy his love forever. Bible prophecy assures us that God intends to do this, and previous fulfillments of prophecy assure us that he has the power to carry it out, to do exactly as he has purposed to do.
Motivates godly life
Last, we say that Bible prophecy motivates believers to live a godly life in Jesus Christ. How does it do this? For one, it gives us a motive to turn to God, because we are assured that he wants the best for us, and we will receive good forever if we accept what he gives, and we will ultimately receive bad if we don’t.
This is shown in 2 Peter 3. We can start in verses 10-12:
The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.
We are to look forward to the day of the Lord, rather than fearing it, and we are to live godly lives. Presumably something good will happen to us if we do, and something less desirable will happen to us if we don’t. Prophecy encourages us to live godly lives, because it reveals to us that God will reward those who faithfully seek him. Verses 12-15:
That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
Bible prophecy encourages us to make every effort, to have right behavior and right thoughts, to live godly lives and be at peace with God. The only way to do this is through Jesus Christ. In this passage, prophecy is telling us that God is patient, faithful and merciful.
Jesus’ ongoing role is essential. Peace with God is possible only because Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us as our High Priest. The Law of Moses foreshadowed and prophesied this aspect of Jesus’ saving work; it is through him that we are strengthened to live godly lives, to make every effort, and to be cleansed of the spots we incur. Through faith in him as our High Priest, we can be confident that our sins have been forgiven and we are assured of salvation and eternal life. Prophecy assures us of God’s mercy and the way that we can be saved through Jesus Christ.
Prophecy is not the only thing that motivates us to live godly lives. Our future reward or punishment is not the only reason to live right. We can find motivations for good behavior in the past, the present, and the future. In the past, because God has been good to us, and in gratitude for what he has already done, we are willing to do what he says. Our present motivation for living right is our love for God; the Holy Spirit in us causes us to want to please him in what we do. The future helps motivate our behavior, too—God warns us about punishment presumably because he wants that warning to motivate us to change our behavior. He promises rewards, too, knowing that they also help motivate us. We want to receive the rewards he will give.
Behavior has always been a reason for prophecy. Prophecy is not just foretelling, it is also forth-telling: setting forth God’s instructions. That is the reason many prophecies were conditional — God warned of punishment, and he hoped for repentance so that the punishment would not have to come. Prophecies were not given as trivia about the future — they had a purpose for the present. Zechariah summarized the message of the prophets as a call to change: “The earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says, Turn from your evil ways…. Return to me, and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3-4). Prophecy tells us that God is a merciful judge, and because of what Jesus Christ does for us, we can be saved if we trust him.
Some prophecies were longer-range, and did not depend on whether people did either good or bad. Not all prophecies were designed for that purpose. Prophecies come in such a wide variety that it is difficult to say, except in a general sense, what all prophecies are for. Some are for this, some are for that, and there are some we aren’t sure what they are for.
When we try to make a statement about something as diverse as prophecy, we will make a general statement, because that is accurate: Bible prophecy is one of the ways God tells us what he is doing, and the overall message of prophecy therefore tells us about the most important thing that God is doing: leading us to salvation through Jesus Christ. Prophecy warns us of judgment to come, assures us of mercy, and therefore encourages us to repent and get with the program of what God is doing.