Not long ago, I “masked up” and met a fellow pastor at a coffee shop to help him choose a subject for his upcoming preaching series. Because of this “series of unfortunate events” that popularly became known as 2020, I casually suggested preaching from a prophetic book.
“I am really struggling to keep our congregation engaged in serious study,” the pastor admitted, “and the last thing I want to do is start into any passage that will sound speculative, or could be easily sensationalized by the news, or become congregationally divisive.”
He flatly asked me, “Why should I include prophetic passages in the preaching diet of our church when even mature Christians don’t agree on what they all mean?”
It was a thoughtful question, and it deserved a serious answer.
After all, any who have tried to teach through prophetic books will admit the study to “rightly divide the text” can be quite intense, and it doesn’t easily lend itself to offering a myriad of practical instructions that equip today’s struggling families to practice their faith or reach out with the Gospel.
The notion of impracticality probably wouldn’t be surprising if the prophets themselves heard the objection! Those men and their message have always been a point of contention. Long after God revealed to Moses the nature and work of both priests and Levites, He raised up the office
of “seer” or “prophet.” While priests were carefully schooled in practices of atonement sacrifices and were generally well-respected in the ancient Jewish community, prophets came from diverse backgrounds, and were not as widely (or easily) accepted. They didn’t conform to a singular training method, though Elijah and Elisha did minister in some sort of “school of the prophets.”
The work of the prophet was to lend voice (and sometimes written word) to “God’s view of events” and allow people to pick out the underlying and permanent spiritual meanings that were too often veiled. It wasn’t always easy to understand the point of each prophecy, and many demonstrate multiple fulfillments, particularly when they related to a type of Messiah, and also to His work.
With all that possible ambiguity, why would we deem prophetic study as important for a believer’s growth and discipleship? Let me suggest several reasons:
First, prophecy is important because it is an extensive part of God’s revealed truth. Dr. James Gray, the third president of Moody Bible Institute, once noted, “Taking it in bulk, more than one-half of the Bible is predictive, so no further reason is necessary as to why Christians should study prophecy.”
Assuming God knew what we needed better than we do, we would be wise to be wary of anyone who casually dismisses parts of the Bible as “less relevant” to a proper understanding of our Heavenly Father and our mission. While detailed understanding of prophecy is no requirement for salvation, the end goal for us isn’t merely to be saved, but to walk with Him and be led by Him daily. By calling us to know His Word, and by including predictive prophecy in His Word, God signaled His expectation that His people will pay attention to prophetic messages, and avoid being misled by false prophets and error.
Perhaps that is why the Apostle Paul sternly warned the Thessalonians about those teaching false versions of end- time prophecy and used the words, “Let no one deceive you.” Paul was not alone. Jesus warned in Matthew 24 of some who will deceive many— including God’s chosen people, if they aren’t well versed and discerning of the holy text when the time arrives.
Second, prophetic portions offer important answers to questions about the spiritual world. People who are led by Jesus want to know what happens to them when they die, and what will happen to the world in the coming days. Is there a resurrection of the dead and when will it occur? How and when is God’s judgment? These questions are more than fleeting curiosity. They help settle us as we mature in our faith.
Third, prophecy reminds us that patience is a virtue and waiting on God is a necessary discipline for every believer. James (James 5:7-9) reminded us that we must “be patient” until the coming of the Lord, like the farmer who scans a dry field and awaits coming rains. “Instant” is not a normal descriptor for God’s work. He tends to work through extended processes over significant periods. Knowledge of the basics of His revealed plan can build enduring confidence in His control of every event leading to the end of the story, but we will be forced to learn to wait on Him.
Fourth, prophetic portions help us keep perspective over life’s hardship and pain. Rehearsing prophetic timelines can reduce punishing frustration in tough times. We can watch the rise of a Hitler, Stalin, or Bin Laden and become deeply dismayed unless we draw on the revelation of our Savior’s promised return and days ahead when He will set the books straight. Such prophecies help us construct a stable foundation offering courage during time of trial as we trust that God’s hand is directing events with purpose. Prophecy makes clear that He alone will draw things to a culmination in His time. In the darkest moment, we can recall that one day the King of Kings will be revealed to all as the Victor. When we are certain of the outcome and understand some of the purpose of troubles, perhaps we can endure pain.
Fifth, studying prophecy should spur me toward a more distinct (holy) walk. The Apostle Peter called for believers to “prepare their minds for action, keep sober in spirit,” as he reminded: “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.” (I Peter 4:7).
Consider how engaging passages on the return of Jesus, and an anticipated face- to-face meeting with Him at the Bema Seat of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3 and 2 Cor. 5) can impact our daily choices. Like people who “put on the breaks” when they see a police car beside the high- way, students of prophecy are reminded of coming events and a time when we will give account of our actions to Jesus, and that should cause us to make better choices.
Sixth, prophecy can prepare us so we are not overwhelmed by evil. When darkness rolls in like a storm, it
is hard to remain positive and feel our efforts are not being over-run by forces far more powerful than our own. The description given by Paul in 2 Timothy 3 of “people of the last days” speaks powerfully about the world believers will find themselves engulfed within. Listen to the description (my paraphrase):
It will be a society filled with people who who think highly of those who shamelessly brag, appear openly haughty and don’t bind their tongue before uttering things fully insulting to God and that which
He called sacred. Loud voices will promote lost respect for authority and feel entitled to whatever they choose. They won’t abstain from flagrant violation of Biblical morality; won’t cherish the boundaries that God placed on life and won’t feel the need to live up to promises and contracts if they change their mind. They will seem unable to govern their behaviors, and will have lost sensitivity to those hurt by their trampling of what went before them. They will laugh at, celebrate and entertain themselves with evil but won’t prize good. They will want change even if it is reckless and openly believe they are worth much even if they have accomplished little. Paul’s list ends with this: they will quote verses and use the Bible in their speech – but not within the context and purpose for which they were revealed.
We can wring our hands and wag our fingers at such a lost world, but that was not the driving force behind this prophetic warning. The warnings were to allow the church to know the signs of the end, and to enable shepherds (and through them all believers) to get prepared to navigate this kind of world. It was to keep believers from being overwhelmed by evil and increasingly press them to remain courageous in spite of surroundings. In short, believers were warned so they could be prepared. Standing in shock and disbelief, the church would lose valuable time mounting a response to changed conditions. Yet, God gave us a graphic depiction beforehand.
Seventh, prophecy doesn’t just expose events of the future; it exposes God’s character. How exciting it is to know more about our Creator! How powerful the picture of the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” as set forth in the pages of the Bible’s final book! Of all that we can know of our God, perhaps these three characteristics are best reflected in the prophetic words:
Prophets laid bare the unparalleled power of God. No scene can better depict the might of the Creator than reading about the “Great White Throne” judgment near the very end of the Bible. There is no place to flee God’s judgment, and no one powerful enough to contend with Him.
In that same way, prophecy profoundly exposed the justice of God. The final scenes of human history unfold to declare God has the absolute right to have all things subjected to Him. In His Word, He never minimizes sin, nor hides its devastating effects. Unresolved cases from earth with their unsettled victims find ultimate solace in the fact that the judge has overlooked nothing. Every unconvicted criminal and rapist will stand trial, and every victim wounded so deeply in this life will find peace in the presence of the One Who sees all, remembers all, and holds all to account.
It is also true the prophecies hold out a message of the love of God for His creation. Sitting on a hillside overlooking Nineveh, Jonah argued with God about the forgiveness He offered the repentant gentiles, but the prophet got a front row seat to see God’s joy in offering grace. Jonah saw God’s love drive God’s proclamation. Prophecy, then, like every other part of God’s revealed Word doesn’t just lead us to know events and timelines, they lead us to know God in ways we might not see Him if those portions were neglected.
Prophecy is an essential part of our spiritual diet, so God included it in the book. He called us to know and trust Him. He beckons us to recognize the times and seasons and be ready to meet Him soon. The time between pronouncements of coming judgment and that day of adjudication is “grace time.” That probably best describes our moment in history right now. – by Dr. Randy Smith
Dr. Randy Smith is the founder of Great Commission Bible Institute and served as teaching pastor at Grace Church, Sebring, Fla. He is also the founder of Christian Travel Study Programs and frequently leads study tours of Israel, Italy, Greece, and other Mediterranean countries.
This story first appeared in the Winter-Spring 2021 issue of GraceConnect magazine. Click here for your complimentary subscription to this publication.