Chapter 8 - How Bible Prophecy Is Fulfilled
In the Book of Revelation Bible prophecy comes to a
magnificent climax. This is the greatest prophecy of all, given by Jesus
himself. It is "the Revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave unto him." A
recognition, therefore, of the main characteristics of Bible prophecy should be
a considerable help towards understanding Revelation In two outstanding respects
this turns out to be true.
The first is this: Practically every prophecy of the Old
Testament springs out of the immediate circumstances surrounding the prophet at
the time of writing. The terminology employed and the imagery with which the
prophecy is clothed both grow naturally (or, more correctly, supernaturally) out
of what is familiar and vivid in the prophet's own experience.
Moses, the first and greatest of the prophets, assures the
people that "a prophet like unto me" shall be given to them. David describes
Messiah's kingdom in terms of the great hopes, which he had for the reign of his
blessed son Solomon. Jeremiah's terrific, almost blood-curdling, prophecy of the
judgement of God on the nations in the Last Days is couched in terms of the
Babylonian threat hanging over much of the known world of his day. The Messianic
prophecies in the early chapters of Zechariah spring out of contemporary events
associated with Zerubbabel the prince and Joshua the high-priest at the time of
the restoration from Babylon. The wonderful prophecies of Isaiah, perhaps
without a single exception, after the first few chapters, are built round the
character and experiences of good king Hezekiah. Any expositor attempting a
study of the later relevance of that tremendous book without taking this fact
into consideration is hamstrung from the start. Indeed, it is possible to go
further and assert that the Hezekiah background to Isaiah 40-66 provides perhaps
the strongest refutation available of fashionable theories about
The examples available of this characteristic of Bible
prophecy are so very numerous that it is hardly possible to list here
more than a small fraction of them. The experienced Bible student takes this
factor into consideration automatically whenever he is working in the field of
Old Testament prophecy.
Then ought not this feature to be taken into account in the
study of Revelation also? At the time when the prophecy was given to John (A.D.
66 - see chapter 7), the outstanding circumstances of importance to the early
believers were the ferocious persecution of the Christians by Nero, and the
seething restlessness and turmoil in Judaea which already gave plain promise of
worse to come in the troubles of the Jewish War, A.D. 67-70. It would be strange
indeed, and altogether out of character, if this latest and most wonderful
example of Bible prophecy were to shew no sign of the proximity of these
MORE THAN ONE FULFILMENT
Much more important, for present purposes, is another feature
of Old Testament prophecy. This, closely related to what has just been
mentioned, is best explained by means of a familiar example.
Psalm 2 describes an organized opposition to the Lord's
Anointed by the kings of the earth. This psalm of David doubtless sprang out of
that king's personal experience in the early years of his reign when he captured
Jerusalem and established it as his capital. Very soon after that, David found
himself beset by Gentile enemies who came at him from all directions. Philistia,
Moab, Hamath, Edom, Syria, Ammon, Zobah - all of these, separately or in
confederacy - made violent attempts to wreck the consolidation of the kingdom,
which David had lately achieved (2 Samuel 8, 10).
But the New Testament makes a different and more important use
of this inspired Psalm. After the first futile attempt by the Jews to persecute
the early disciples, the prayer of praise and thanksgiving (Acts 4:24 28)
included this quotation from Psalm 2 together with the interpretation of it:
"Lord, thou art God . . . who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why
do the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth
stood up, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against
his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed
(his Christ), both Herod (the kings of the land), and Pontius Pilate (the
rulers) with the Gentiles (the heathen), and the people of Israel (the people)
were gathered together (same word as in v. 6)."
It is possible to continue the reference of the rest of the
Psalm to the events in the early church, but that is not advanced here because
such a suggested interpretation would not have behind it the Holy Spirit's
inspiration which this, just quoted, undoubtedly has. Acts 4 provides an
unimpeachable warrant for reading Psalm 2 with respect to the experience of the
church in the First Century.
But, equally clearly, Revelation 19:15 gives yet another
application of the Psalm in the time of the Lord's manifestation in power: "Out
of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and
he shall rule them with a rod of iron" (Psalm 2:9).
Yet another, closely related, application of the Psalm is
given in Revelation 2:26, 27: "He that overcometh . . . to him will I give power
over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a
potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father (in the
fiat of Psalm 2)."
Thus in the New Testament this inspired Scripture, clearly
based 011 David's experiences, is given two (or three) other applications to the
greater work of Christ, one of these being the time of his first coming, and
another the time of the end.
A NORMAL FEATURE OF PROPHECY
Other examples follow a similar pattern. The familiar prophecy
in Joel 2 about the outpouring of the Spirit could be shewn to have its roots in
events of the prophet's own day. But its true fulfilment was at Pentecost (Acts
2:17-21), and without doubt more fully in the days to come.
Similarly with the equally familiar Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of
the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me . . ." The entire chapter is
marvelously relevant to certain events in the reign of Hezekiah. In the
synagogue at Nazareth Jesus applied it to his own ministry. Today the faithful
await with eagerness its yet greater fulfilment.
Indeed, this is the pattern of much of Isaiah's matchless
Scripture. From beginning to end the relevance of the prophecies to his own time
can be traced. But the real fulfilment is in Christ-sometimes his first Advent,
sometimes his second, sometimes both. Even the wonderful prophecy in chapter 11
about the great Messianic King is given a preliminary application by Paul to the
preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles in the First Century (Romans
Jeremiah's denunciation of the temple, as being in his day "a
den of robbers" destined to destruction (7:11), was applied by Jesus to his
contemporaries (Mark 11:17) and may yet conceivably have another fulfilment in
Ezekiel's repetitious "I will overturn, overturn, overturn it"
(21:27) is probably more than just emphasis, but is intended to teach the reader
to seek applications of his prophecies not only to the time of Nebuchadnezzar,
but also to A.D. 70 and to the Twentieth Century.
The well-known words of Micah 5 were written primarily with
reference to contemporary events - verses 5, 6 are explicit about this. But
there is New Testament authority (Matthew 2:6) for interpreting verse 2 with
reference to the birth of Jesus. And the general character of the prophecy makes
it only too evident that the rest of it is yet to be fulfilled by Christ in his
"A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you like unto
me," Moses promised Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). And no doubt the less
discerning among them were satisfied that the prophecy was fulfilled in Joshua.
But even without the apostle Peter's authority (Acts 3: 22) it is easy to see
that the true reference is to Jesus.
In a completely authentic superscription Psalm 18 declares
itself to be spoken unto the Lord by David "in the day that the Lord delivered
him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul." But even if
there were not at least four Messianic allusions to it in the New Testament it
would be evident enough that the entire Psalm belongs to Christ in his suffering
and his glory.
And David knew this! Peter's exposition of Psalm 16 in Acts
2:25-32 has these significant words: "Therefore being a prophet, and knowing . .
. he seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ . . ." So
when David penned Psalms about his own experiences he knew that he was enacting
beforehand the experiences of the Messiah. What he wrote out of the vicissitudes
of his own life (he is a type of Christ at least five times over!), he wrote
also about Christ.
With little effort this catalogue of Bible prophecies with
dual (or triple) fulfilment could be extended to four or five times its length.
But the principle is surely evident by now.
IN REVELATION ALSO?
The question demands consideration: If this is the character
of so much Bible prophecy, is it unlikely that the greatest prophecy of all -
Revelation - has none of the same characteristics?
And, further, why is it that we have had to wait so long
before this question was even asked?
LASTLY, A WARNING
Familiarity with the continuous-historic method of
interpretation has left a marked effect on the thinking of many students of a
kind which they are often hardly aware of. One finds an almost obsessive
determination to seek an interpretation of Revelation (even if it is not the one
advocated by John Thomas) which puts the fulfilment in chronological order,
demanding (for example) that Seal 3 be fulfilled before Seal 4 begins to
operate, and Trumpet 6 only after Trumpet 5 has come and gone.
It cannot be too strongly emphasized that much Bible prophecy
does not follow this pattern at all. The sequence of the "In that day"
prophecies in Zechariah 12, 13, 14 is anything but chronological. Nor, by modern
standards, is there a nice tidy development about Isaiah's Little Apocalypse
chapters 2~27. Similarly, it is very evident that God's "four sore judgements on
Jerusalem" (Ezekiel 14:21; 33:27; 5:17) all came together, and not one after
another. Even the Olivet prophecy lacks straight chronological order.
The long-received continuous-historic exposition itself could
be somewhat more consistent in this respect. For instance, chapters 11, 12 (the
two witnesses, the seventh trumpet, the woman and man-child) are hardly in
chronological sequence if they refer to the Huguenots, the resurrection, and the
Christian take-over in the time of Constantine. Similarly with chapters 14,
The point will have to be made more than once in this
exposition that the visions of Revelation present a series of "snapshots" of big
developments in the divine purpose, without special regard to time sequence.
Seals, Trumpets, and Vials will be fulfilled together in a tremendously powerful
complex of divine judgements on an evil system. And there are clear hints in the
Vials (16:2, 10, 19) that its fulfilment is to be regarded as contemporaneous
with or even after chapter 17.