God’s later redemptive actions or revelations often change our interpretation of the original prophecy. This result of progressive revelation can be seen within the Old Testament itself. For example, God promised to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:7,18; 17:16–17), but this was only fulfilled hundreds of years later—after Abraham’s descendants left EGYPT under Moses and conquered Canaan under Joshua. Similarly, when JACOB was joining Joseph in Egypt, God told Jacob that He would bring him back again (Genesis 46:4). But Jacob died in Egypt, and only his body was brought back to Canaan for burial (50:12–13). Much later, God fulfilled His promise to Jacob another way, by bringing Jacob’s descendants back to Canaan.
The second point to remember is that many prophecies were only partially fulfilled. A single Old Testament prophecy sometimes predicted many events, but not all of these events were fulfilled at the same time. Part of a prophecy might have been fulfilled in the past, while another part may still remain unfulfilled today. As was true with progressive revelation, some of the most obvious partial fulfillments are seen in Messianic prophecies. Isaiah’s predictions of a suffering Messiah (Isaiah 50:4–9; 52:13–15; 53:1–12) who brings spiritual deliverance (Isaiah 4:2–6; 49:1–6; 61:1–2) were fulfilled in Jesus life, death and resurrection, but Isaiah’s prophecies for political justice and judgment on the wicked were not (9:6–7; 11:1–5; 42:1–4). Later, Jesus taught that He would come a second time to bring the promised judgment and justice (Matthew 24:30–31; 2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 19:11–20:3). Similarly, many Old Testament prophecies about the last days were only partially fulfilled during Jesus earthly ministry. Many will not be completely fulfilled until His second coming. For example, Jesus death fulfilled Daniel’s prediction that 483 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem the Anointed One would be cut off1 (Daniel 9:25–27). But many Christians believe that the events of Daniel’s final seven years will only be fulfilled after Jesus comes again.
Furthermore, many prophecies have more than one fulfillment. We saw this above with Jacob’s return from Egypt. Double fulfillment is commonly seen for prophecies that predict Israel’s restoration after God’s judgment (for example, Isaiah 44:24–28; 45:1–14). Many of these prophecies were fulfilled at the time of the Israelites return from Babylon after seventy years in exile. But both Jews and Christians believe another, more complete, fulfillment will take place in the future (Isaiah 45:17,23–25). Another example of double fulfillment is Daniel’s prediction that a king of the North will set up the abomination that causes desolation in the Jewish temple (Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). This was clearly fulfilled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168 B.C. when he set up an idol to Zeus in the temple. But Jesus later prophesied that “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel, was still future, and that another abomination would be placed in the holy place of the temple (Matthew 24:15–25). The Roman emperor Caligula (37–41 A.D.) tried to have a statue of his own likeness placed in the Jewish temple in order to be worshiped as a god, but this never took place. Therefore, many Christians believe that the second fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy will occur just before Jesus second coming.
The Meaning of Prophecy: Literal or Symbolic?
Christians have not always agreed on the best method of interpreting predictive prophecies in the Bible. One way is to try as far as possible to understand prophecies in the most natural, literal sense. This means not only that the original words of the prophecy should be understood in the most natural, literal sense, but that the fulfillment of the prophecy must also be exactly as it was written. For example, most Christians who hold this view argue that a prophecy about Israel should be understood as a promise of a real nation of Israel. If such a prophecy has not yet been fulfilled, then a real nation of Israel must be coming in the future. Again, if a prophecy about temple sacrifices has not yet been fulfilled (Ezekiel Chapters 40–48), then a new temple will be built in the future so that the sacrifices can be re-instituted (compare Daniel 9:24–27). Even when there are symbolic figures in the original prophecy, this first group of scholars believe that the symbols refer to real historical persons or events. So the "slain Lamb" in Revelation 5:6 refers to the real Jesus in a real event, not just to the general idea of sacrifice in a spiritual sense.
A second group of Christians interpret prophecies a different way. They point out that many prophecies are poetic, using symbols and figures of speech. They argue that many, even most, prophecies must be understood symbolically, and that the New Testament writers understood many that way (for example, Luke 3:5 and Hebrews 8:8–12). These scholars teach that Old Testament prophecies often refer to our spiritual renewal or restoration, rather than to a specific earthly renewal. To take a New Testament example, most of this second group of scholars believe that the millennial kingdom of Revelation 20:1–2 is not a still future earthly kingdom, but symbolic of the present spiritual rule of Christ in heaven and in the church. Those who hold this second view agree that some prophecies were fulfilled in a literal way, but they point out that most prophecies cannot be interpreted correctly before they are actually fulfilled. For many prophecies, only afterward can we know which parts are literal and which are symbolic.
Let us look at a single Old Testament prophecy to see how it would be interpreted by each of these two viewpoints. Isaiah 49:8–26 is one of many passages predicting the future restoration of Israel. All Bible scholars agree that these prophecies were only partly fulfilled at Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile. Most of those who understand prophecies as much as possible in a literal way teach that these promises will be completely fulfilled in an historical sense to the Jewish people after Jesus second coming and during an earthly millennial kingdom. Most of those who understand the majority of prophecies symbolically teach that these promises have been completely fulfilled in a spiritual sense through the church, so there is no remaining part of the prophecy waiting to be fulfilled on earth in the future.2
Christians on both sides must be careful. Both ways of understanding prophecies can be taken to such extremes that they do not make sense. Those who hold the first view should not insist on such a literal understanding that they end up teaching nonsense: no one believes that at the time of John the Baptist, the actual mountains were flattened and the valleys filled in (Luke 3:4–6). And those who hold the second should not insist on such a symbolic understanding that they end up ignoring a literal fulfillment: all Christians agree that the Suffering Servant in Isaiah Chapter 53 is more than symbolic of Israelites suffering as a group, but was literally fulfilled in one person, Jesus Christ, during His crucifixion. Scholars from both groups agree that the symbolic way of understanding prophecy is misused if the original meaning of a Bible passage is totally ignored to find a symbolic meaning.3
The Problem of False Prophets
God wanted His people to inquire of their God (Isaiah 8:19), and so He promised to send them prophets who would speak in His name (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). Therefore, God prohibited the use of pagan sorcery, magical divination, or consulting the dead through a medium (Deuteronomy 18:9–12). God also warned the Israelites that men and women would arise who would claim to be His prophets, but were not sent by God. How were the people to recognize which were the true prophets and which were the false ones?
First of all, Moses pointed out the obvious fact that if a prophet predicted some event that never took place, then such a prophet could not have been sent by the all-knowing God of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:20–22). Of course, not all prophecies were predictions of certain punishment; some were only warnings of what might take place. Because the people of Nineveh thoroughly repented, God did not send the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3:10). So Jonah’s prophecy was only a warning. Moses taught the Israelites to test a prophet’s firm prediction of the future. If it failed to occur, the prophet was proved to be false.
Sometimes, however, the predictions of false prophets do come true. So Moses gave the Israelites a second principle for testing prophecies. He taught them to test whether a prophecy fit with God’s previous teaching. If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder . . . takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods . . .” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer (Deuteronomy 13:1–3). The Israelites were supposed to use more than just the Ten Commandments. Those prophets who taught the people to sin against any of God’s commands were shown to be false. God does not contradict Himself. So the Israelites were meant to compare new prophecies with all of God’s past revelation.
The third Old Testament principle was a moral test. Did the prophet’s life indicate that he or she was living a holy life? Jeremiah pointed to the evil and wickedness of false prophets (Jeremiah 23:10–14). Ezekiel accused false prophets of encouraging the people not to turn from their evil ways, and even of “white-washing” their corrupt moral lives (Ezekiel 13:5,10,22). This test was not a requirement for perfection, since only Jesus lived a sinless life. But a prophet living in unrepentant sin (especially publicly known) must be false.
The New Testament confirmed these tests. Paul expanded Moses warning about those worshiping other gods to include anyone who preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus he preached, or a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:3–4; Galatians 1:8–9). Christians may not be tempted to worship other gods or idols, but they can be tempted to worship a Jesus invented to fit their own wishes, or to accept a different path to SALVATION than simply trusting in Jesus finished work. Jesus confirmed the “moral life” test of the Old Testament when He said, “Watch out for false prophets . . . By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15–16). If a prophet produces no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19–23), true predictions mean nothing (Matthew 7:21–23; 1 Corinthians 13:2). Even miracles do not prove that a prophet is of God (Mark 13:22). Many times, only a lack of moral fruit, or a message that does not fit with Scripture, can help us identify a false prophet.
We also find two new ways to discover false prophets in the New Testament. Paul taught that the Holy Spirit has given the church a special gift of distinguishing between spirits to help Christians recognize when a message is from God or from an evil spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10–11; 14:29). And John taught that a prophet who does not accept that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh denies Jesus full humanity, and therefore must be false (1 John 4:1–3).
False prophets and false teachers can also come from within the church. Peter wrote that some church members started out on the right path, but left the straight way and wandered off . . . (2 Peter 2:1,15–20). And Paul warned the Ephesian elders that some of their own would arise and distort the truth (Acts 20:30). Were such false prophets originally true believers? Some Christians answer "No," pointing out that Jesus promised to tell false prophets, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:23). Other Christians believe that some false prophets began with a true ministry from God, but later fell into ongoing sin and ended up as false prophets. Thankfully, God does not withdraw His gifts every time we commit a sin (Romans 11:29). But whether or not false prophets were originally true believers, God does promise to eventually remove them from their ministry4 (Isaiah 44:25; Jeremiah 23:15,38–40; Ezekiel 13:9).
A Final Word
We need the Holy Spirit to help us recognize false prophecies, but we also need the Spirit to help us understand true prophecies (John 16:12–15)—whether we try to understand them literally or symbolically. Unbelievers are dead in sin, and cannot understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). In addition, SATAN has put a veil of blindness over the hearts of unbelievers, and only in Christ can the veil be taken away (2 Corinthians 3:14–15; 4:3–4). When Christ lives in us, our spirits are made alive (Romans 8:10), and our minds are renewed (12:2). Even so, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God; therefore, we must also be given the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us (1 Corinthians 2:11–12).
1 Each of these 483 years was only 360 days long, since three-and-a-half years is said to be 1,260 days (Daniel 7:25; 12:7–11). Therefore, Daniel’s 483 years do end at the historical time of Jesus death about 30 A.D. For further discussion, see General Article: The Second Coming of Jesus Christ, in The Applied New Testament Commentary.
2 Covenant theologians usually interpret prophecies symbolically, and Dispensational theologians literally (see General Article: Covenants and Dispensations).
3 Some wonder if Paul interpreted the story of Sarah and Hagar in just such an extreme symbolic way in Galatians 4:21–31. But Paul’s comparisons still fit the meaning of the original story (see General
Article: Types and Predictive Events).
4 Whether God’s judgment includes the loss of salvation for any false prophets who began as believers is not clear. For further discussion, see General Article: Can We Lose Our Salvation? in The Applied New Testament Commentary.