Principles of Prophecy
Between 25 and 30 percent of your Bible is prophecy. There are basic keys to understanding Bible prophecy. You need to know what they are.
As the year 2000 approached, excitement about the "new millennium" inspired many to take renewed interest in Bible prophecy. We all wanted to know: Is the end of the world about to occur? Is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ near? What will happen around the world in the next decade—or the next century?
The Bible reveals the answers to those questions. In this magazine, and on the Tomorrow's World telecast, we have shared with you dozens of articles and broadcasts giving you insight into the great prophesied events that lie ahead. Now events are building toward the Great Tribulation and other major milestones prophesied in the Bible.
Today, no nation is safe from war or terrorism. Terrorists have struck the United States on its own soil, and have attacked its residents abroad. We have seen violent killings in American high schools. Violent weather has caused massive property damage and loss of life through earthquakes, flooding and hurricanes. The once-proud United States has lost power and influence, and even cooperated in its own decline, as when it gave away the Panama Canal, one of the world's major sea gates.
As the 21st century unfolds, we will continue to see the trends outlined in the Olivet prophecy in your Bible. That prophecy is found in three chapters: Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Read these, and you will see that the future of the world is clearly outlined there—as it is in the rest of your Bible! To many, Bible prophecy is a mystery, a puzzle and a matter of human interpretation. But God unlocks the mystery of prophecy; He plainly reveals the future to His servants.
The Apostle Peter asserted that Bible prophecy is of divine origin. "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed" (2 Peter 1:19, KJV). Peter was aware of Scripture and its prophecies. He affirmed that these prophecies are certain, and that we as Christians should pay very serious attention to them.
In this article, we will review five principles, or keys, that will help us better understand Bible prophecy. The first key is that the Bible interprets its own symbols. The book of Revelation, for example, contains symbolic language. Revelation 1 describes the glorified Messiah, the Son of Man standing in the midst of seven lampstands. Revelation 1:16 describes Him holding seven stars. What do these stars and lampstands symbolize? We need not speculate; the Bible itself tells us the meaning. "The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches" (Revelation 1:20).
In Bible symbolism, stars are angels, and lampstands are churches. The writer of the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, continues in the next two chapters writing God's message and admonition to the seven churches in Asia Minor—modern Turkey.
Prophetic literature uses the word mountain as a symbol of a kingdom, empire or government. Take a look at a passage in Jeremiah, where God is declaring His punishment on the great empire of Babylon. "'And I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea for all the evil they have done in Zion in your sight,' says the Lord. 'Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain, who destroys all the earth,' says the Lord. 'And I will stretch out My hand against you, roll you down from the rocks, and make you a burnt mountain'" (Jeremiah 51:24–25).
Here, God uses the symbol of a mountain for a kingdom, or an empire. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a dream, which Daniel explained to him. The king dreamed of a great image. He saw a stone smash the feet of this image, representing the Kingdom of Babylon succeeded by the Persian Empire, the Greco-Macedonian Empire and finally the Roman Empire. "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (Daniel 2:35).
Daniel explained that King Nebuchadnezzar was the head of gold represented in the image (v. 38). But what was this stone that became a great mountain and filled the earth? The Bible interprets the Bible. "And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever" (vv. 44–45).
What mountain or kingdom will rule the whole earth? As so many prophecies explain, that Kingdom will be the Kingdom of God ruled by the King of kings, the Messiah, Jesus Christ! He will destroy the last resurrection or revival of the end-time Roman Empire. Finally, peace will rule over all the earth under the Government and Kingdom of God.
As we have seen, God uses symbolism throughout the Bible. Stars are symbolic of angels, lampstands are symbolic of churches and a mountain can be symbolic of a kingdom or government.
A second key to understanding biblical prophecy is the "prophetic time gap"—the fact that some prophecies may jump in time even by thousands of years. We find one such example in the book of Luke. Jesus was visiting his hometown of Nazareth, and was invited to read from Scripture on the Sabbath. He was given the scroll of Isaiah. "So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.' Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, 'Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:16–21).
Yes, the Messiah had come to preach the gospel to the poor, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. Jesus told His listeners that this very prophecy of Isaiah was right then being fulfilled through Him. But was that all of the prophecy? When we look at the passage Jesus was reading in Isaiah, we discover that He closed the book right in the middle of a verse. He left out the phrase "and the day of vengeance of our God" (Isaiah 61:2). Why did He do this? Because the remainder of Isaiah's prophecy applies to the time of Jesus' Second Coming, when the day of God's vengeance and wrath and the Day of the Lord take place. There is a time gap of approximately 2,000 years between the fulfillment of the first part of the verse and the second part of the verse.
A third key to understanding Bible prophecy is "duality." Often in the Bible we find a former fulfillment of a prophecy and a later, more climactic, final fulfillment of the prophecy. We can find one example in 1 Corinthians. "And so it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45). Who was the last Adam? The Bible interprets itself: "The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven" (v. 47). The second Adam was Jesus Christ.
Even Jesus Christ's famous "Olivet prophecy" is an example of prophetic duality. Some critics insist that Jesus was speaking only of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70ad. Some of the terrible conditions Jesus described actually did take place when Jerusalem was destroyed. But that was just a "type" or forerunner of the final climactic fulfillment that will come at the end of this age. As Jesus said, unless He intervenes, the destructiveness of human beings would lead to total cosmocide and destruction of all life on planet Earth. "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened" (Matthew 24:21–22).
Yes, prophecy is dual—and we ought to learn the lessons of history. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70ad was just a type of the Great Tribulation that lies yet ahead.
A fourth key to understanding Bible prophecy is to understand how and where today's nations are mentioned in the Bible. Where is the United States mentioned in the Bible? Or under what name can we locate it? Where can we find Great Britain in the Bible? Obviously the modern names do not appear, but the ancestors of these nations are prominently named in the Bible.
The Bible mentions by name such nations as Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia. Those nations will play a significant role in Middle Eastern events (Daniel 11:43). But what happened to the ancient nation of Assyria? Believe it or not, Assyria will eventually be one of the prominent nations in tomorrow's world, along with Israel and Egypt (Isaiah 19:23–24). As Bible prophecy reveals, Assyria will once again play a pivotal role in world affairs and end-time events (cf. Isaiah 11). But who is modern Assyria?
Those of you who have been reading this magazine for some time may recall an earlier article explaining the identity of modern Assyria. Dr. Douglas S. Winnail wrote: "While most historians are reluctant, or fail, to make any connection between the disappearance of the Assyrians and the appearance of the Germanic tribes, the fact remains that no other nation's history and national character resembles Germany more than does that of Assyria" ("A Fourth Reich?", Tomorrow's World, May-June 1999, p. 17).
Understanding the modern identity of the nations mentioned in the Bible gives us a clearer understanding of Bible prophecy. And to put it plainly: "When the Bible speaks of Assyria in the end-times, it is speaking of Germany" (Ibid., p. 30).
Bible prophecy mentions many other nations. Sometimes Bible commentaries may be helpful in determining their modern descendants. And if you have not already done so, please call or write for our informative free booklet, What's Ahead for America and Britain? You will learn where these great nations are mentioned in Bible prophecy—and you will learn about their startling future as well!
A fifth key to understanding Bible prophecy is to understand God's prophetic framework. To understand Bible prophecy, we need an overall framework for the future. There are many different ideas and scenarios regarding the thousand years mentioned in the book of Revelation. Premillennialism is the teaching that Christ will return to set up a literal kingdom here on earth for a literal period of one thousand years. This is what the Bible actually teaches as a framework for prophecy, as we will see.
Postmillennialism wrongly teaches that the world will eliminate evil by human effort, through the influence of traditional Christianity. That is just not going to happen—selfish human nature must first be changed! The very reason for Christ to return, is to save this earth from thermonuclear destruction and total cosmocide! Amillennialism is the belief that the expression of a "thousand years" in the book of Revelation is purely symbolic of a peaceful relationship with Christ. Certainly genuine Christians do have a wonderful relationship with God the Father and with their Savior Jesus Christ. But the Bible clearly teaches Premillennialism. Christ revealed that God's plan of salvation will include the Kingdom of God literally ruling on this earth for a thousand years, preceded by His return, as we have discussed in previous articles and on the Tomorrow's World telecast.
The Bible gives us an overall framework for prophecy. We need to understand that framework. For example, the book of Revelation describes a period of three-and-a-half years leading up to the return of Christ. The first five seals described in Revelation 6 cover a period leading up to and culminating in the Great Tribulation, of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 24. The sixth seal is the heavenly signs. The whole world will be put on notice when this event occurs: "I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?'" (Revelation 6:12–17).
The seventh seal commences the famous Day of the Lord, mentioned in more than 30 prophecies in your Bible. This "day" is the year of God's punishment on the nations. And it culminates with the well-known announcement of Christ's return and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. That is the exciting good news of prophecy: \Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!'\ (Revelation 11:15).
This is the solution to the world's problems. It is the gospel—"good news"—of the Kingdom of God. The Messiah, Jesus Christ, is now training genuine, faithful Christians to be a part of that future world-ruling kingdom on earth (cf. Revelation 5:10; 20:4–6). Yes, Jesus will return before the real Millennium begins. And you can have a part in the world to come and in His Kingdom, if you respond wholeheartedly to God's calling—and if you seek Him with all your being (Isaiah 55:6–7).
As a final example, look at a situation that Scripture says will prevail for the three-and-a-half years preceding Christ's return. "Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, 'Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. But leave out the court which is outside the temple, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months. And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth'" (Revelation 11:1–3).
The "holy city"—Jerusalem—will be controlled by the Gentiles, not by the Jews, for 42 months. During that time, two prophets of God will witness with great power, and will contend against the revived Roman Empire which will dominate the Middle East at that time. These two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days—or 42 months of 30 days, in biblical terminology. This is a part of the prophetic framework that we need to understand.
Bible prophecy is not intended for hobbyists or curiosity seekers. One cannot fully understand prophecy unless he or she is willing to submit to the teachings and instructions of the Bible. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.'"
And we can understand these prophecies, though even some who wrote them did not. An angel told the prophet Daniel: "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand" (Daniel 12:9–10).
We can today understand prophecies that Daniel was not allowed to understand. God tells us that none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand. God gives wisdom to those who submit to Him, who want to obey Him, and who reverence Him. As Scripture tells us "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever" (Psalm 111:10).
You can begin to truly understand biblical prophecy, if you apply these five key principles, and if you choose to seek God wholeheartedly.