The true nature of prophecy may be stranger than you thought! Look through the telescope for a better understanding…
The Nature Of Prophecy: Part Of A Bigger Story
The nature of prophecy is that it’s part of a bigger story as told in the Bible.
It’s a story which begins with the creation of the world and humankind …and descends into the darkness of sin.
The story rises again at the breaking of the curse in Jesus’ death and resurrection. And it culminates in our full return to relationship with God, just as it was in the beginning.
Throughout the Bible story, prophecy told the people of God about God. It told them what the Lord had done for them, what he would do in the future, and what he was about to do, imminently.
Prophecy pointed out their weaknesses and exhorted them to follow God’s laws. And always, prophecy brought people out of themselves and pointed towards a transcendent God.
Prophecy today, in whatever form it takes, always fits that pattern and reminds us that we are also part of the same story.
Even in those times where we may receive a very simple message, it is most often something that tells us God is still ‘there’ and that he loves us.
The Nature Of Prophecy: Through The Telescope
The best analogy I have heard about prophecy is that it is like looking through a telescope:
- Events that may be far away in time appear as though they are close up.
- Conversely, near-future things may appear to be further away than they really are.
If we are the ones looking through the telescope, we may see everything mixed up together: future, present and past. This creates a tension which we have to learn to live with.
Your own telescope
Picture for a moment, a very special telescope given to you by the Lord. It has the ability to see what the Lord sees and capture it inside as though it were a photographic ‘snapshot’.
The Lord speaks and shows you something new. As long as you keep looking through the telescope, the experience is wonderful and exciting. But, to your eye, events overlap and the detail blurs in and out.
However, God shows you how to turn the telescope sideways, so you can see both ends. When you open up its full length, you take in a beautiful panorama, just as the Lord intends.
That’s the nature of prophecy, in a nutshell!
The Nature Of Prophecy: Past, Present And Future
Biblical Prophets often spoke about future events in either the past or present tense. One of the clearest examples of this is Psalm 22.
Attributed to Israel’s King David, Psalm 22 speaks of present troubles, but witnesses to Jesus’ future death. Its opening line is directly mirrored by Jesus’ own words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I don’t have space to include the whole psalm here. However, among Christians today, who can read lines like these and not think of their saviour?
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
…they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
(Verse numbers retained for reference, you can read the whole Psalm here)
Mingling of past, present and future
This mingling of past, present and future can cause difficulties when we try to understand and interpret prophecies, both those in the bible and those we hear first hand.
How does this come about? I believe it happens because God has a very different perspective to us humans. While that may sound self evident, let us just pause there for a second.
God is eternal. He is, as he states in scripture, "the Alpha and the Omega", the beginning and the end.
Whether he is outside of time itself, as well as outside the universe (although intimately involved in it), is a matter for debate. However, he is clearly all-seeing, not only of the length and breadth of the physical creation, but of all beginnings and all ends.
Mankind on the other hand, is a creature of the world, bound up inside its laws and governed by the four dimensions of space and time. We cannot help but see everything through the lens of our location in history, as well as geography.
What The Nature Of Prophecy Means For Us Today
Sometimes the Prophets used all three tenses at once!
They would say something like this:
“God did that for you in the past, but you are acting like this in the present. So the future God has for you will be like that."
Commonly, such words were a dire warning but they usually came with a caveat at the end: These things will happen if you do not repent.
This type of prophecy reveals 2 important truths about the nature of prophecy:
1. Prophecy is the “Now” word of the Lord
Even in circumstances where prophecy speaks of the future, it always elicits a response in the present.
The prime function of prophecy is to reconnect us with our creator and Father. Therefore, it always encourages personal and corporate engagement with God, here and now.
Reference to our past relationship with God reminds us where we came from and of his faithfulness. But his promises and possible perils of the future draw attention to our potential today.
2. Prophecy is conditional
A few prophecies are unconditional, but they are usually for situations where God acts unilaterally and in a very specific way.
Isaiah gives us one such example, when he foresees the birth of Jesus:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Of course, many Bible Prophets speak of the coming of the Messiah and spell out various events in the life of Jesus. God made sure that his most important envoy to the human race would be made plain for those with eyes to see it!
However, the majority of prophecy, both in the bible and in today’s world is conditional.
The Lord himself make this plain to Jeremiah:
“If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it”.
(Jeremiah 18:5-10, emphasis mine)
I will relent
“I will relent” literally means “I will change my mind”. And we see specific examples where God changes his mind about judgment, while in conversation with his greatest servants:
Abraham intercedes successfully for the city of Sodom in one account (Genesis 18:16-33). And Moses persuades the Lord not to destroy the people when they worship the golden calf (Exodus 32:14).
But there is a further significance for us today.
The Nature Of Prophecy Is Conditional
Since the nature of prophecy is that it's conditional, we need to walk out God’s will and plan for our lives.
This “Christianese” expression to walk out his will really means that we spend time engaging with God as we engage with a prophecy.
We don’t just assume that his will happens as a fait accompli. We actively pray and ask the Lord for the next step and then we actually do it!
And when we’ve done what he asked us to do, we keep praying for the steps after that. This keeps us in step with him (hence the phrase) and brings us closer to the promised fulfilment.
Of course, at any time we can choose to follow a different route. We could stop praying, we could stop obeying, but this would delay and (if taken to extremes), even prevent the outcome we seek.
That’s the nature of prophecy and the nature of our relationship with God. But God is patient and even when we go off track, he gives us grace to bring us back on course.
The Nature Of Prophecy Is For Everyone
On the Day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit came and filled all the believers in dramatic fashion, drawing the attention of everyone nearby.
Apostle Peter stood up and quoted the following scripture to the people who were listening:
”In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”
He was trying to explain what had just happened and offered the same power to those present.
This was a huge revelation!
Previously, authority and spiritual gifts had been restricted largely to senior, male leaders. Now, however, it would be available to all!
Peter speaks to us today
Acts 2:17 is itself an example of the past/present/future duality of prophecy. But it’s also a prophecy for us in the end times and for modern-day prophets, worldwide.
Its implications are far-reaching:
It’s just as Jesus said to his disciples:
“My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”
There’s a place for everyone in the kingdom, including you and me. And there’s an opportunity for every believer to partake in the full nature of prophecy.
Prophecy isn’t fortune telling: it’s about encouraging, exhorting and reminding people to relate to God as they walk out their calling.
If it is about the future, then it’s usually conditional in some way or another and it’s about the next steps to take today.
What do you think about the past/present/future nature of prophecy?
Let Us Know Your Answer In The Comments Area, Below.