Understanding Prophecy in the Bible
Seventh-day Adventists place great emphasis on the study of prophecy.
In fact, Adventism has its roots in the study of God’s Word, especially the prophecies that have to do with times yet to come. And we uphold that a correct understanding and applying of Bible prophecy is important for a healthy spiritual experience.
Let’s walk through the basics of Bible prophecy:
- What “Bible prophecy” means
- Different types of prophecies
- The purpose of Bible prophecies
- How to apply what we learn from prophecy in our lives
- Why studying Bible prophecy means so much to Adventists
Let’s begin with the definitions.
What does “Bible prophecy” mean?
In the Bible, prophecy simply refers to any communication of God’s will to humanity through a human being. And the title of “prophet” refers to the person who receives and communicates this message from God.
Prophecies can address:
Things that happened in the past
In the Bible, these types of prophecies were given for the purpose of learning from the history of the Jewish people—both the good lessons and the bad.
They reminded God’s followers of what He taught them in ancient times. And if they weren’t following these teachings, the prophets shared these things to help point them back in the right direction—living according to the principles God gave them for their own good.
A good example of this is found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah. He warned the Israelites of coming destruction due to their disobedience. He pointed them to the “old paths” as their only way of escape. He counseled them saying:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls’” (Jeremiah 6:16, NKJV).
We could also look at the many times Moses had to bring messages from God to the Israelites while he was leading them to the Promised Land. If they started to doubt or become overwhelmed with fear, he would remind them of what God had done for them (Exodus 15, 16, 17), and God would then provide for them once again.
Present or contemporary issues
God also spoke to His people through prophets about things that were happening currently. Sometimes it was revealing unknown things that were going on, or sometimes it was God calling people’s attention to appropriate details.
Like during King Josiah’s religious reforms.
When Hilkiah the Priest discovered “the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord,” the king inquired from a prophetess called Huldah about what was written in it. The prophetess gave them a straight answer from God concerning the fate of Judah. She also encouraged the king’s efforts in reform (2 Chronicles 34:14-28, NKJV).
Another example is when King Hezekiah needed direction on how to deal with a political crisis when Assyria threatened to invade Judah. God sent him assurance of protection through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 37).
And there’s when King David committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. When he tried to cover it up by having the soldier killed in battle, God sent David a prophet, too.
Things that would happen in the Future
Many Bible prophecies had to do with the future. In fact, whenever we hear of “prophecy,” we tend to associate it with revelations of what will happen in the future.
And there’s a good reason behind this reflex.
The Bible is filled with messages from prophets who spoke of things that would happen in the near or distant future.
Here are different categories of future prophecies:
- The futures of individual people, like King Josiah and John the Baptist
- Messianic prophecies (about Jesus)
- The future of Israel as a nation
- What will happen to God’s people in future generations
- Future world events as they will unfold in history
- The end of earth’s history and the second coming of Christ
- What will happen after the Second Coming, and when God will create a new heaven and a new earth
And the best part is that many of these prophecies have been fulfilled exactly as the prophets said they would happen.
Knowing this helps us to trust the Holy Bible as God’s true Word. And to trust that other prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled will also happen as predicted when their time comes.
The Bible tells us that the way to test if a prophet is a true or false prophet is by whether his predictions happen. The Bible says:
“When a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name, and the message does not come true or is not fulfilled, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:22, CSB).
So, the fact that Bible prophecies have been fulfilled gives proof that biblical prophecies were from God.
Types of Bible prophecies
Bible prophecies fall into several categories. These categories help us to understand why God did or didn’t fulfill some prophecies. And they also help when it comes to interpretation of these prophecies.
Let’s look at them:
Conditional or unconditional prophecies
These are prophecies which happen depending on whether the people comply with God’s commands.
God Himself laid out this principle through the prophet Jeremiah when He said:
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it.
And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (Jeremiah 18:7-10, NKJV).
You’ll find another good example of this in the story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-10).
Nineveh was a very cruel city. And God had determined to destroy it if its citizens would not admit their wrongs and change their ways within 40 days. But when Jonah preached to them and warned them of their danger, they humbled themselves and repented.
Jonah 3:10 tells us that “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (NKJV).
These prophecies are descriptions of the future. They are not subject to varying circumstances, and they are to come to pass just as put forth.
(And this gives us a sure way to determine when these things start to happen, since we’ll know all the details have to match up. God doesn’t make incomplete prophecies!)
Most of these have to do with important milestones in the plan of salvation.
These are bound to happen whenever they fit into the big picture. There is nothing any human can do to stop or change these prophecies.
(They would include the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Him dying on the cross, or His second coming.)
Jesus came and died for humanity even though most of them did not accept Him.
Since it was part of God’s divine plan, it went on as God knew it would. And from this, we know that He will come again when His time comes.
Apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic prophecies
These are prophecies that talk about the end times, or the time period just before the second coming of Jesus.
While many of them use symbolic language, others use direct and literal language.
Examples of symbolic language can be found in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.
Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 speak of beasts with horns and crowns. And of a dragon and another beast that is worshipped. Then Revelation 17 talks of a woman sitting on a beast. All these represent different events and dynamics of the end times and how they affect God’s people. And when the time comes, we’ll be able to connect the dots.
A good example of non-symbolic or literal language in end-time prophecies is found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.
There are also other verses1 scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments that describe the end times.
You might have heard about a “great tribulation” that will happen at the end of time, as the world is progressively left to its own devices. Or maybe you have questions about how the Second Coming will happen.
For answers to such questions, here is an excellent Bible study that covers the ins and outs of these prophecies and more.
These are all the other Bible prophecies that don’t address end time events. Like those of the first coming of Jesus as Messiah, and of Israel as a nation.
There’s also the very first prophecy ever uttered from God to humans, and that’s in Genesis when He told Adam and Eve how the earthly fate of the human race would play out, since they were then living in a world of both good and evil (Genesis 3).
The purpose(s) of Bible prophecy
While many prophecies tell about the future, that is not the end goal of prophecy. The main goal is to give us hope, to connect us to God’s will, and to encourage us to make relevant changes in our present situations.
Prophecy provides information that inspires appropriate action.
Here are five ways prophecies can deepen faith and inspire action:
1. To encourage patience and hope in difficult situations
When the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, they got discouraged and wondered when they’d be able to go back to their land.
Then God sent the prophet Jeremiah to them with an encouraging message in Jeremiah 29. He told them that though they had 70 more years in Babylon, they should not give up.
God assured them that in the end, He would bring them back to their land. His word for them was:
“I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NKJV).
2. To encourage a change of heart
We can look in the book of Daniel for a good example of this.
The main aim of the prophecy of chapter 4 was to lead the proud king to “break off [his] sins by being righteous, and [his] iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” (Daniel 4:27, NKJV).
Though it took a long time and a difficult experience, Nebuchadnezzar’s pride was finally humbled.
And he admitted that God is supreme and able to humble the proud (Daniel 4:37).
3. To warn people of coming destruction as a result of Sin
An example for this would be the story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh that we looked at earlier (Jonah 3).
Because the people repented, they were spared from going through serious trouble. Trouble that would have happened in just 40 days if they didn’t.
4. To reveal information or impart wisdom
In some situations in the Bible, people were confronted with strange dreams, confusing messages, or puzzling situations. God communicated the meanings of these things with His prophets so they could offer guidance to His people or demonstrate His power to His opposers who threatened His people.
Again we can look in the book of Daniel.
Daniel was an Israelite captive in Babylon. But due to his good behavior, he was working in the royal court. So when King Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream, and none of his usual “wise men” could figure out what it was, Daniel came forward.
Daniel gave glory to God, whom he asked to give him the wisdom about the king’s dream. When God provided this, the king witnessed the power of God and promoted Daniel (Daniel 2).
5. To allow preparation for the future
We find a situation like this when God told Joseph to instruct the Pharaoh of Egypt to store food for a famine that would come years later (Genesis 41).
6. To provide direction/Insight about a situation
There is an example for this in the experience of the people of Judah who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.
When they relaxed after some time and stopped the work of rebuilding Jerusalem, God sent them the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1).
These two encouraged them to rise to action. And pointed them to the hope of the Messiah in the future.
Applying what we learn from prophecy
As we’ve seen here, there are so many important prophecies in Scripture. And by studying them, we can learn crucial lessons and apply them to our lives.
The prophetic word, even when we read what was spoken of past events, can help us prepare for our own future. Just like it did for the people it was meant for.
As we see God’s plan and love for His people, we can trust Him with our lives. And we can come closer to Him.
Also, we can learn from the mistakes of others who refused to listen to the warnings given through prophecies.
And most importantly, we can prepare for the Second Coming.
Referring to the knowledge we have through prophecies of the last days, Peter urges us saying:
“Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless. …since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:14, NKJV, 2 Peter 3:17–18, NKJV)
Also, apart from preparing ourselves to be ready when Jesus comes, we can help others be ready too.
How can we do that?
By sharing the gospel and the truths we know with them.
In fact, Jesus prophesied that this will be one of the signs of the end.
He said that this “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, NKJV).
Did you see that?
It’s actually the one sign that counters the other troubling ones.
Because it brings hope in despair.
It inspires love in place of hatred.
It stirs us to reach out to others with a desire to help and to connect.
Especially in a world of pain and death, it offers peace and eternal life to anyone who will accept it and believe in Jesus (John 3:16).
So ultimately, sharing the gospel gives us the opportunity to be a part of something infinitely bigger than ourselves. Something eternal. Something wonderful.
And you don’t have to be a pastor or Bible scholar to do this. Just sharing what you have learned so far, and your experience in knowing Jesus as your Savior and Friend, is a good place to start.
Why does prophecy mean so much to Adventists?
Adventists treasure the study of Bible prophecy for a few key reasons:
1. It’s what led to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
Back in the late 1790s, some believers saw that Bible prophecies pointed to Jesus’ soon return. And this was unlike the popular belief at the time, which regarded the Second Coming as a metaphorical or purely spiritual event (as opposed to physical or literal). For those that did believe it would really happen, they expected it to be in the very, very distant future.
So after this realization, they began preaching and telling others about it. Many more people began to study their Bibles in their own homes, rather than just listening to church preachers talk about it.
This developed into the Millerite Movement in the US in the first decades of the 1800s.
Several influential people in this movement mistakenly attempted to set a date for this Second Coming, however, which the Bible says not to do. This led to the Great Disappointment in 1844.
But instead of losing their faith, a great number of these fervent students of the Bible went back to studying the prophecies. And that’s how they discovered where they went wrong in their interpretation of Daniel 8:14.
They continued with these studies, which led them to learn about even more wonderful truths the Bible provided. Many of these concepts were not commonly studied or referenced in the churches of that time, so these truths became distinguishing doctrines of Adventism—such as the sanctuary message and the seventh-day Sabbath.
Even today, Adventists feel that emphasis on prophecy should be a key component of a healthy spiritual life.
2. It helps us understand God’s loving character
Through prophecy, we see how in His love for us, God still ultimately has control of all that happens in our lives and in the world.
And as we read stories like those of King Cyrus and Josiah, we can be encouraged that even if the world is in chaos around us, He has a plan for each of us. And we can rest in assurance that in the end, everything will ultimately work out for His triumph.
3. Studying Bible prophecy gives us a unique perspective in life
We can see the big picture in the different situations in our personal lives or even world events and history.
It pulls back the curtain for us to see that things are not always what they appear to be. Often, the awful or confusing things happening in the world at any time pale in comparison to how God will one day make everything right.
And it reminds us that there are spiritual influences working behind the scenes. We can’t always trust humans. Only God.
So again we can hold onto the assurance that God is always working to ensure our salvation. That He‘s always at work to protect us from danger and to encourage us in safe paths.
That’s why the topic of Bible prophecy doesn’t have to make us afraid. Instead we can find a profound kind of comfort in knowing that whatever mess this world gets itself into, God will always stay with us and He will prevail in the end.
All prophecies point to Jesus’ victory for us. Victory over sin, death, and suffering when He returns at the Second Coming.
2 Timothy 3:1-5; Joel 2:28-32; 2 Peter 3:3-7; Daniel 12:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; 1 Timothy 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 13:17; 19.
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