One thing that has come up a couple times as I’ve been writing about the book of Revelation and the Mark of the Beast is the idea of prophecy. In Revelation, is John not speaking prophetically if he’s using metaphor to discuss contemporary issues?
Underneath this question is an assumption about what prophecy is and how it works in the Bible. To give us an idea, let’s start with some of the claims the gospel writers make about Jesus regarding prophecy.
Matthew, more than any other gospel, relies heavily on the idea of prophecy. Each gospel was written for a specific purpose with a target audience in mind. Matthew, in particular, wrote his gospel for Jews to help them understand that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah. This is why Matthew often refers back to Old Testament passages and claims Jesus fulfilled them.
For example, we see already in Matthew chapter 1, right after describing Jesus’ birth by a virgin Mary, Matthew writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”
Again, in chapter 2, we see a couple references to Jesus fulfilling prophecy like in verse 14-15 when we’re told, “So he [Joseph] got up, took the child [Jesus] and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
In both of these examples, as well as most of the other prophecies in Matthew, we see the writer claim that Jesus fulfilled what God had said through the prophet. However, if you go back and examine either of these passages, Isaiah 7:14 and Hosea 11:1 respectively, you’ll notice that neither is specifically talking about a future coming Messiah.
Isaiah 7 is talking about an impending invasion by the kings of Aram and Israel against Judah. The prophet Isaiah is speaking on behalf of God and tells Ahaz, the king of Judah, that the invasion will not end in their destruction. As assurance, Isaiah gives Ahaz a sign; a virgin (otherwise translated in this passage as “young woman”) will conceive a child and before this child is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, the kings Ahaz is afraid of will be dead. The prophecy in Isaiah 7 is kind of futuristic, but like… two years into the future.
As for the Hosea passage, it’s not even talking about the future, it’s talking about the past. The context of Hose 11 is the original Exodus from Egypt centuries before. God is speaking through Hosea and reminding his people of their history. The full verse is, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” This is essentially a verse saying, “Hey guys, remember when you were slaves and I rescued you?”
So how can Matthew take either of these passages and claim Jesus fulfilled prophecy through them? Neither Isaiah’s nor Hosea’s original audience would have read either of these passages as talking about a future Messiah many centuries into the future.
The clue to how all of these works is found in the word ‘fulfilled’. Jesus uses it as well in Matthew 5 when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
When Jesus says he came to fulfill the law he doesn’t mean he came to complete the law in the sense that we don’t need to live by it anymore. In fact, he says the opposite, he says that he didn’t come to abolish the law.
In this context, the word fulfill means to live it out. Jesus came to show us what it looks like when you truly live by the law. He put flesh and bone on the words of Moses.
And in the same way, Matthew is using the word fulfill to mean “living it out” when he speaks of Old Testament prophecies. For Matthew, Jesus wasn’t accomplishing centuries old predictions, he was living out the story of Israel in real time. Jesus’ entire life was a microcosm, a small scale representation, for the people of Israel as a whole.
The people of Israel came up from Egypt and Matthew points out that Jesus did too. The people of Israel crossed the Jordan river into the land of Canaan and Matthew points out in chapter 3 that Jesus gets baptized in the Jordan as well. Israel wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert being tempted. At every turn, Jesus fulfills or lives out the story of Israel.
It’s not that the Old Testament prophets were speaking with a kind of precognition. They weren’t being shown visions many centuries into the future and saying, “This is what I see happening.” (That’s typically what we think of when we think of prophecy, a Nostradamus style prediction of the future.)
Rather, the Old Testament prophets were mostly speaking about the character of God. They were telling the people around them what God is really like and how he feels, both positively and negatively, about their current behaviour.
This type of forth-telling, speaking about God and what he’s like, will always have an element of futurism. When you’re telling people how God feels about a certain behaviour, you will invariably end up mentioning how God will react to said behaviour.
In this way, prophecy is very similar to a father speaking to his misbehaving children and saying, “Just wait until your mother gets home, she’s not going to be happy with you.” That statement contains a future prediction, but the point is to inform the children that their behaviour is unacceptable and that there will be consequences if they continue on their current path.
This is important because it reminds us that we’re not the intended audience for Scripture. Prophecy is not something that is included in Scripture as a secret code waiting to be deciphered by the one generation to which it applies (as we typically assume is the case with Revelation and parts of Daniel). Prophecy is spoken to all generations and shows us a better picture of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. Prophecy assures us that God is in control regardless of our personal life circumstances and will continue to bring about his vision for the cosmos.