One of the most distinguishing marks of the Bible is its many prophecies about the future. In this, the Bible is unique among all books ever written. No other book, and certainly no other “religious book,” contains anything like biblical prophecy, but in the Bible, prophecy is common. The Bible makes predictions about things that are going to take place centuries or even millennia in the future, and then those prophecies come to pass.
Another distinctive of the Bible is the God-centered worldview it contains from Genesis to Revelation. Part of this God-centered worldview is the concept that history is linear. “History is linear” means that God has determined the beginning of history and God has also appointed the end of history. God is eternal, but His creation is not, and things will not endlessly go on as they are. Jesus Christ is coming back, and so the creation is hurtling toward the end at the rate of sixty seconds a minute.
Combining the idea of “prophecy about the future” with the concept that “there is an end to history,” we arrive at a working definition for eschatology: The study of the Bible’s prophecies about the end-times (also known as “last things”). This article will consider end-times’ prophecy and some thoughts about how to do that study.
What is the purpose of a prophecy? A prophecy is given in the Scriptures so that, when that prophecy is fulfilled, it will again be demonstrated that God is the one who has planned all things (Romans 4:21) and that He is able to fulfill the prophecies that He makes. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).” For this reason, when God makes a prophecy in His Word, He not only guarantees the fulfillment of that prophecy, but He guarantees that the fulfillment of the prophecy will be recognized. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, the LORD made a prophecy that “The virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Then, more than 700 years later, God fulfilled that prophecy in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:23). The virgin, Mary, was with child and she bore a Son, Jesus, who was Immanuel, “God with us.” Prophecy made. Prophecy fulfilled and prophecy recognized. And this pattern, of “Prophecy made – Prophecy fulfilled and prophecy recognized,” is repeated literally hundreds of times, especially regarding the first advent of Jesus Christ. Prophecies made. Prophecies fulfilled and recognized.
Now, the prophecies about the first advent of Jesus have all been fulfilled, because Jesus Christ appeared in the flesh almost 2,000 years ago. But there are many prophecies in the Bible that are still unfulfilled because those prophecies are concerning Jesus Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the age. Even though these prophecies of Jesus’ return are yet unfulfilled, their purpose is the same as the purpose stated above and their guarantee is the same as the guarantee above. God has written prophecies about the end of the age for the purpose of proving that He has planned all things and that He is able to fulfill the prophecies that He makes. God is glorified by making then fulfilling prophecies. This also means that, since God has made these end-times prophecies about the end of the age and the return of Christ, He has guaranteed their fulfillment and has guaranteed that their fulfillment will be recognized.
These two ideas about prophecy, that end-times prophecy will fulfill God’s purpose and that all end-times prophecies are guaranteed fulfillment and recognition, justify the effort involved in discerning the meaning and the timing of the end-times prophecies in the Scriptures. Since all the prophecies of the end of the age will certainly be fulfilled, then the disciple of Jesus is encouraged to “make careful searches and inquiries seeking to know when we can anticipate the revelation of Jesus Christ (adapted from 1 Peter 1:10-13).”
While making careful searches and inquiries, it must also be acknowledged that the study of eschatology is hard work, and there are special challenges when studying end-times’ prophecy.
- The first thing to try to figure out is if this vision or passage is about the end of the age or about Jesus’ return at all, or is it about something else entirely?
- What is the nature of the prophecy? Since many of the prophecies about the end of the age and the return of Christ are given in figurative, apocalyptic language, it can be difficult to discern what is being prophesied. Discerning this is critical, for if the nature and meaning of the prophecy are not correctly discerned, then it is impossible to recognize the prophecy’s fulfillment.
- Understanding prophecy demands a thorough knowledge of all of Scripture. The more Scripture you have in your head, the more material the Holy Spirit has to use in showing related words and phrases and visions. Also, a deep familiarity with the whole Bible helps you to understand the language and the idiom of Scripture.
All these steps in exegesis require skill, prayer, and patience. Skill means gathering good exegetical tools and learning to use them well. Prayer is needed for the Holy Spirit’s insight. Patience keeps you moving forward in the study and prevents giving up. And all of this is meaningful because prophecy glorifies God. So, we willingly sacrifice ourselves (Romans 12:1) to see what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9).
WHAT PROPHECIES ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
We have established that God will certainly fulfil the prophecies He makes in His Word. Guaranteed. Our task is to identify God’s prophecies in the Scriptures and then interpret them such that they form a cohesive picture. So, what are some of the prophecies we need to examine in our study of the end-times? A partial list follows.
Resurrection * (1 Thess. 4) The Seventy Weeks (Daniel 9)
The apostasy (2 Thess. 2) The man of lawlessness (2 Thess. 2)
The beast (Rev. 13) The false prophet (Rev. 13, 16)
The 144,000 (Rev. 7; 14) Time, times, and half a time **
Forty-two months ** 1,260 days **
The trumpets (Rev. 8-9) The seals (Rev. 6)
The “four horsemen” (Rev. 6) The battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16)
The bowls of wrath (Rev. 16) The two witnesses (Rev. 11)
The “thousand years” (Rev. 20) The great white throne judgment (Rev. 20)
The little horn (Daniel 7) The small horn (Daniel 8)
The rider on the white horse (Rev. 19) The lake of fire (Rev. 19; 20)
NOTE “Millennium” = “thousand years” * Resurrection includes “the rapture”
** These three expressions are what I refer to collectively as the 42 months*.
And there are others, but the main point is this: God has placed these prophecies in His Word for His glory. They will certainly come to pass, and they will be recognized. This is what makes the study of eschatology so exciting and rewarding.
SDG rmb 2/11/2021