When Prophecy Becomes History

Prophecy pervades Scripture. From the protoevangelical promise of the Seed of the woman Who would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), to the final “Surely I come quickly” (Rev 22:20), God’s Word has a great deal to say about the future. The prophecies of Scripture touch on many great events, but these first and final prophecies summarize the two momentous events that are the focal points of God’s plan for creation and the chief preoccupation of prophecy. “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10), and the first and second comings of the Lord Jesus Christ are the preeminent subjects of prophetic revelation.

We are in a unique position in relation to these great events, living in the period between these comings. As such, much that was prophecy for previous ages is history for us. Thus, we are in an unparalleled position to understand how prophecy works, to learn from the fulfillment of prophecies of the first coming principles that illuminate and invigorate our understanding of the way in which God causes His prophetic Word to come to pass.

The record of Scripture leaves absolutely no room for any doubt that the fulfillment of prophecy is certain. What God says will inevitably come to pass. And this is true, no matter what the opposition or the apparent impossibility of His promises. From the moment that God articulated the promise of the coming conquering woman’s Seed, all of Satan’s energy and ingenuity were marshaled to thwart the fulfillment of the prophecy. But no matter what Satan’s efforts, God’s great prophetic program moved serenely and inexorably forward until “when the fullness of the time was come” (Gal 4:4), the Son of God became the Seed of the woman, and at the Cross, bruised the serpent’s head. Even apart from the machinations of the enemy, the accomplishment of prophecy required tremendous difficulties to be overcome. Again and again, the fulfillment of prophecy has demonstrated His omnipotent power. Abraham must wait until the birth of a son was naturally impossible before God’s promise is performed and a son is born to one “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). Following Pharaoh’s defiance, God will harden his heart until only a remarkable sequence of miraculous events can pry His people free. God will place His finger upon the mighty Caesar to ensure that Christ would be born in Bethlehem of Judea. And when the time came for the Messiah to be born, natural probability and possibility are alike set aside for “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son” (Isa 7:14).

The fulfillment of God’s prophetic Word is not a matter of probability or of chance. The certainty of prophecy is underwritten be the immensity of His power.

We have seen prophecy that has become history, witnessed the way in which God’s promises have been performed. As we consider prophecy that is as yet unfulfilled, we ought also to be fully persuaded of the certainty of God’s Word, knowing that what He has promised He will inevitably perform.

The fulfillment of prophecy is certain, but it is also comprehensive. The first prophecy of Genesis 3 provided a very broad-brush outline of God’s purpose. In the centuries that followed, that picture would be filled in with a mass of intricate detail. The prophets of the Old Testament made a wealth of predictions, covering the place and manner of the Savior’s birth, the timing and mode of His death, and the reality of His resurrection. Each and every prophecy was fulfilled. He hung on the cross; the Savior’s priority was the fulfillment of prophecy. Even as He knew that the work of redemption had been accomplished He was concerned to ensure that no detail of prophecy would be disregarded or left unfulfilled.

In this regard, too, the first advent of Christ has provided the template for the way in which prophecy is to be fulfilled. God has not provided us with the vague and generalized outline in which modern predictors and prognosticators take refuge. Rather, He has provided us with just as detailed and definite an account of the events that will precede and attend the second coming of Christ as He did of those that accompanied His first advent.

Interpreters of Biblical prophecy, from a range of ecclesiastical persuasions, have often been guilty of treating Scripture like a code that needs to be cracked. Prophecies about the future are allegorized and spiritualized until they lose any literal meaning and much or all of their practical import. But this was not the way in which prophecy worked at the first coming of the Savior. When the wise men came to Jerusalem, having seen the star in the East, they asked Herod, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt 2:2). When Herod questioned the chief priests and scribes, they had no doubt about where to look. Their immediate recourse was to prophetic Scripture: “And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, ’And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel’” (Matt 2:5-6). Having identified the relevant passage, they did not subject it to any fanciful spiritual interpretation. Their answer to the question assumed that Scripture meant what it said, that Bethlehem meant Bethlehem, and Juda meant Juda.

Another example of the importance of literally interpreting prophecy is found in Psalm 22. The entirety of this Psalm is a wonderful prediction of the scenes of the Savior’s death. Verse 16, in particular, is remarkable for the clarity with which it described the gruesome process of crucifixion: “They pierced My hands and My feet.” This Psalm was written by King David, whose reign is generally dated to about 1040-970 B.C. Yet crucifixion is only recorded from the 6th century BC. Four hundred years before the Persians devised this peculiarly agonizing method of execution it had been prophesied by David. One hardly likes to imagine what some contemporary interpreters of prophecy would have done with the passage had they not had the benefit of hindsight. Yet, God’s Word was fulfilled with the utmost precision.

Examples could be multiplied to prove the point. God speaks to us literally in His Word, and He means us to take Him at His word. This does not mean that we disregard metaphors, or fail to take account of poetic language or of symbolism. It does, however, mean that we have no license to allegorize or spiritualize it because we do not wish to yield to its teaching. Rather, we are bound to accept the literal truth of what Scripture says and to apply to prophetic Scripture the normal rules of interpretation that we apply to any other text. And we must, therefore, accept that when Scripture says Israel, it means Israel, that when it talks about a thousand-year-long reign of Christ it means just such a reign, and, in short, that all its details will come to pass.

Peter speaks of “a more sure word of prophecy.” In this remarkable passage, Peter elevates the certainty of prophetic Scripture above that which he saw and heard of the ministry of the Lord, and even above the utterances of the heavenly voice. There could be no more emphatic endorsement of the accuracy, reliability, and perspicuity of the Word of God. As we think of the way in which prophecy has become history may we rejoice again in the wisdom, the might, and the greatness of God, being fully persuaded that what He has promised, He is able, also, to perform.