Growing up, I was taught that the universe was blind and purposeless, and mankind little more than a cosmic accident. In high school, however, I became fascinated by Bible prophecies, arrested by the idea that God was bringing history to an eschatological climax. I began devouring books such as “The Late, Great Planet Earth” and “There’s a New World Coming.” Because of these books, I understood the Gospel for the first time, and placed my faith in Jesus and His death on the cross for my sins.
Because of my interest in prophecy, I began scanning the headlines for evidence of a “revived Roman empire,” the Antichrist, and other dispensational signs of an around-the-corner apocalypse. One of my prophecy authors of choice interpreted Jesus’ statement that “this generation shall not pass away until all these things take place” to mean that Christ would come no more than 40 years after the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1947. When 1987 came and went with no Second Coming—or even a Rapture—I could feel my theological balloon going flat. Was the Bible wrong after all . . . or was I?
I had the Bible prophecy blues. At some point, I decided that prophecy was not a “serious” topic for mature Christians. And if you look at how I and other well-meaning Christians have approached the subject, it wasn’t. And yet, as all the misguided talk about a “Mayan apocalypse” last year shows, human nature seems to be hard-wired to want to know the future.
Bible prophecy is a lot like dynamite—good for blowing holes in our man-centered pretensions, but extremely dangerous if misused. Just look at what happened to followers of radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who predicted the return of Christ not once, but twice, on May 21 and October 21, 2011. Some of these folks spent their life savings to buy space on billboards warning fellow citizens to get ready. When Christ didn’t return, all they had left was the egg on their faces. Camping said he was “disappointed” his predictions failed, and then he had a stroke.
And it’s not just a few wacky modern evangelicals who have gotten bitten by the prophecy bug. The Anabaptists predicted that the end of the world would come in 1533; the Presbyterians foresaw it twice, in 1695 and in 1763; the Adventists, in 1844; the Mennonites, in 1889 and 1891; and the Assemblies of God, around the time of World War I. In more recent eras, leaders such as Chuck Smith and Hal Lindsey have also blundered with Bible prophecy. How much safer to ignore Bible prophecy altogether!
But a funny thing happened on the way to my sanitized, prophecy-free version of the Christian faith—I found that the Bible kept getting in the way. Anyone who spends any time in Scripture will quickly discover that God’s Word has hundreds and hundreds of predictive prophecies. Christian apologist Hugh Ross has estimated that there are 2,500 prophecies in the Bible, 500 of which still await a future fulfillment. You’ve got to wonder, what are all those prophecies doing there if we’re supposed to ignore them?
In fact, the Bible is very clear that we’re not supposed to ignore prophecy, which is meant not only to give us assurance about the future, but to impact our lives today. The apostle Peter wrote:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! (2 Peter 3:10-12)
What sort of people ought we to be? A focus on prophecy helps us answer that question by putting our everyday existence into an eternal perspective. We are not mere animals at the mercy of time and chance. Biblical faith reminds us that history is going somewhere. The prophecies tell us where.
They also tell us Who. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible’s prophecies introduce us to a God who is sovereignly directing history for His own glory and His people’s good. From His promise that Abraham is blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3), to the prediction of a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-3), we see God’s plan unfold perfectly in the history of Israel; in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; and in the sure promises of His coming kingdom.
So why do we so often go astray when handling prophecy? Because we don’t know the how. First and foremost, we take prophecy out of its biblical context. Ignorant of biblical history, we assume that nearly every prophecy speaks to our modern situation. We need to study the principles of biblical interpretation and grasp what the prophecies meant to their original audiences before we mine them for current applications. My book can help you get started.
As we do this necessary but fascinating work, we also need to remember that the prophets speak as much to our current world as they do the world to come.
“Despite what we see in the tabloids and on television, the biblical prophets were not ancient Nostradamuses predicting the future,” says Timothy Beal, professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University. “Sure, they spoke about the future, but also about the past, and especially about the present.”
Prophecy was never meant simply to tickle our fancy about the future. It is also meant to change our lives today. We need a balanced view of Bible prophecy, one that speaks as much to the earth as it does to the eschaton. We need to look into the heavens even as we keep our feet firmly planted on the earth . . . whatever the daily headlines say.
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