Why Prophecy Matters
by Mark Sweetnam, Truth & Tidings Edition Jan 2013
Predicting the future is a human obsession. Businesses invest heavily in the services of analysts who identify the hottest trends. Scientists design complex mathematical models that can be used to formulate predictions about the world and the universe. Philosophers and sociologists ponder the future of humanity. And countless men and women consult fortunetellers, psychics, and astrologers in the vain hope that the prognostications that they offer may be of some value in directing their lives and guiding their decisions. The future, it has justly been said, is big business.
But though we are greatly concerned by the future, we understand very little about it. The failure of politicians, pundits, or prophetic pretenders to anticipate ongoing global financial turmoil is only the recent evidence of our inability to predict the course that events will take, or the nature and magnitude of the forces that direct them. Time and again, confidently proclaimed predictions have to be retracted with red faces and generous helpings of humble pie. Experts and amateurs, scientists and charlatans alike have to acknowledge that they are wrong far more often than they are right.
These failures are inevitable because we are temporal beings, immersed in time, and finite beings limited in our knowledge. As such, we lack the ability to stand outside the flow of events and to obtain a stable perspective from which to make sense of time. Our intellects can only embrace a tiny fraction of the complex forces and factors that shape events. A definitive account of the future can only be provided by someone who stands outside of time, and who can see every cause, from the vagaries of individual whim to the violence of global conflict and catastrophe.
It is astounding to think that we do have an account of the future provided by One Who is outside of time, and Who has a comprehensive insight into every action and reaction. It is still more astounding to remember that this account comes not just from a spectator – however privileged – but from the great Creator and orchestrator, the “King of the Ages” (ITim 1:17, Darby), Who not only “made the world and all things therein” (Acts 17:24), but Who “made the ages” (Heb 1:2, Weymouth). And it is not only astounding, but confounding, too, that humanity in general, and even so many Christians, have so little time for that revelation, and make so little effort to comprehend and understand the divine preview of human history.
The study of Biblical prophecy has often been seen as an eccentric occupation, best left to those on – or approaching – the lunatic fringe. Such a perception is difficult to excuse or explain, and is very harmful for any believer who hopes to achieve a balanced and comprehensive understanding of God’s Word.
It is important to recognize that prophecy is pervasive. If I decide that I am not interested in the study of prophecy, I deprive myself of a proper understanding of large portions of Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New. And in doing so, I implicitly call into question the wisdom of God Who included such an amount, and such a diversity, of prophecy, in His revealed Word. If our Bibles are to make sense to us, we need to make sense of prophecy.
We need also to appreciate that prophecy is precious. In it God takes us into His confidence, and graciously outlines His blueprint for the future. This, as the Lord Jesus pointed out to His disciples, is the act of a friend (John 15:15) and to treat this revelation as something inessential or bothersome is to betray an unbecoming failure to appreciate the honor that God has conferred upon us.
In addition, God’s Word demonstrates clearly that prophecy is preservative and protective. A grasp of Biblical prophecy is a prophylactic against a number of serious ills. Scripture itself demonstrates that this is so – the New Testament provides us with important examples of the impact that confusion about prophecy can have in the lives of believers.
Two believers walked the road to Emmaus on the third day after the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. As Jesus Himself drew near, and went with them, He commented on their most striking feature – they were sad. What was the cause of this sadness? Their friend and leader had been crucified; but even more devastating than this was the overthrow of all their expectations. In despair they lamented “We trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21). A failure to understand prophecy had robbed these believers of their joy. And in their need, the risen Lord ministered not to their emotions but to their minds. Describing them as “fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (v25), He embarked on an exposition of Scriptural prophecy that must have thrilled these despairing believers to their very core. Small wonder that their hearts burned as the Savior Himself brought their defective understanding of prophecy into line with the teaching of Scripture.
Some decades later, the apostle Paul wrote to the assembly in Thessalonica. He anticipated that their grasp of prophetic truth would soon come under attack from false teachers. Paul is very clear about the potential effects of this error, and beseeches the believers that they would not be “shaken in mind or troubled” (2Thess 2:2). To go astray on prophecy would rob them of their peace. In the face of this threat, Paul fortifies the minds of the believers with an exposition of prophetic truth. And it was not only the Thessalonians whose peace was ensured by a firm grasp of the prophetic program. The word translated “troubled” occurs in only two other places in Scripture (Matt 24:6; Mark 13:7), and in both of these passages we find the Lord Jesus unfolding prophetic truth that will preserve the peace of His own.
The Thessalonians were not the only assembly in Scripture to be affected by prophetic myopia. Just a few years later, Paul had to write to the Corinthians. Problems abounded at Corinth, but the apostle chose to deal first with the problem of divisions in the assembly. While serious in themselves, those divisions were only the symptom of deeper difficulties and, like a skilled diagnostician, Paul traces their root in the carnality and worldliness of the Corinthians. And, in chapter 4 of the epistle, he highlights the Corinthians’ confusion about their place in prophecy as one of the sources of their diminished spiritual stature. The Corinthians “had reigned as kings” (1Cor 4:8), demonstrating a failure to understand their place within the prophetic program. And that failure had robbed them of their separation. Like so many whose views about the Millennium are unscriptural, they had come to view the world as a neutral space, where Christians, making use of worldly wisdom, and worldly means of persuasion, could compete on an equal footing with contemporary philosophers. But Paul reminds them that they have mistaken the character of the age. Using imagery from Roman circuses, he makes it clear that there is no neutral ground – the Corinthians were either seated as spectators, or fighting for their lives in the arena. The time for reigning has not yet come, and Paul pleads for these believers to grasp the proper progression of prophecy, and become his followers, even if they followed him to shame and to death.
These passages confirm that prophecy is intensely practical. Understanding God’s plan for the future is no abstruse intellectual exercise. Rather, it has, or should have, enormous impact upon how we live. Large companies pay dearly for the services of analysts and experts because they understand that their insights about the future will help to inform their priorities and investments in the present. In a similar, though far greater way, prophecy allows us to live now in the light of the future, to understand God’s plan for the planet and for us, and thus to decide our priorities and values in the light of what is really and enduringly important.