An inspired message; a revelation of divine will and purpose or the proclamation thereof. Prophecy may be an inspired moral teaching, an expression of a divine command or judgment, or a declaration of something to come. Prediction, or foretelling, is not the basic thought conveyed by the root verbs in the original languages (Heb., na·vaʼʹ; Gr., pro·phe·teuʹo); yet it forms an outstanding feature of Bible prophecy.
Illustrating the sense of the original words are these examples: When Ezekiel in a vision was told to “prophesy to the wind,” he simply expressed God’s command to the wind. (Eze 37:9, 10) When individuals at Jesus’ trial covered him, slapped him, and then said, “Prophesy to us, you Christ. Who is it that struck you?” they were not calling for prediction but for Jesus to identify the slappers by divine revelation. (Mt 26:67, 68; Lu 22:63, 64) The Samaritan woman at the well recognized Jesus as “a prophet” because he revealed things about her past that he could not have known except by divine power. (Joh 4:17-19; compare Lu 7:39.) So, too, such Scriptural portions as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23:1-36) may properly be defined as prophecy, for these were an inspired ‘telling forth’ of God’s mind on matters, even as were the pronouncements by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other earlier prophets.
Examples of foretelling, or prediction, are, of course, very numerous throughout the entire Bible, some earlier examples being found at Genesis 3:14-19; 9:24-27; 27:27-40; 49:1-28; Deuteronomy 18:15-19.
The Source of all true prophecy is Jehovah God. He transmits it by means of his holy spirit or, occasionally, by spirit-directed angelic messengers. (2Pe 1:20, 21; Heb 2:1, 2) The Hebrew prophecies frequently begin, “Hear the word of Jehovah” (Isa 1:10; Jer 2:4), and by the expression “the word” is often meant an inspired message, or prophecy.
In what way did ‘the bearing witness to Jesus inspire prophesying’?
In the apostle John’s vision he was told by an angel that “the bearing witness to Jesus is what inspires [literally, “is the spirit of”] prophesying.” (Re 19:10) The apostle Paul calls Christ “the sacred secret of God” and says that “carefully concealed in him are all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.” (Col 2:2, 3) This is because Jehovah God assigned to his Son the key role in the outworking of God’s grand purpose to sanctify His name and restore earth and its inhabitants to their proper place in His arrangement of things, doing this by means of “an administration at the full limit of the appointed times, namely, to gather all things together again in the Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth.” (Eph 1:9, 10; compare 1Co 15:24, 25.) Since the fulfillment of God’s great purpose is all bound up in Jesus (compare Col 1:19, 20), then all prophecy, that is, all inspired messages from God proclaimed by his servants, pointed toward his Son. Thus, as Revelation 19:10 states, the entire “spirit” (the whole inclination, intent, and purpose) of prophecy was to bear witness to Jesus, the one Jehovah would make “the way and the truth and the life.” (Joh 14:6) This would be true not only of prophecy that preceded Jesus’ earthly ministry but also of prophecy subsequent thereto.
At the very time rebellion arose in Eden, Jehovah God started off this “witness to Jesus” by his prophecy regarding the “seed” that would eventually ‘crush the head of the serpent,’ God’s Adversary. (Ge 3:15) The Abrahamic covenant was prophetic of that Seed, of its blessing all the families of earth, and of its victory over the Adversary and his “seed.” (Ge 22:16-18; compare Ga 3:16.) It was foretold that the promised Seed, called “Shiloh” (meaning “He Whose It Is; He To Whom It Belongs”), would come from the tribe of Judah. (Ge 49:10) By means of the nation of Israel, Jehovah revealed his purpose to have “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:6; compare 1Pe 2:9, 10.) The sacrifices of the Law given to Israel foreshadowed the sacrifice of God’s Son, and its priesthood pictures his royal heavenly priesthood (with associate priests) during his Thousand Year Reign. (Heb 9:23, 24; 10:1; Re 5:9, 10; 20:6) Consequently the Law became a “tutor leading to Christ.”
Of events marking the history of the nation of Israel, the apostle says: “Now these things went on befalling them as examples [or, “for a typical purpose”], and they were written for a warning to us [followers of Christ Jesus] upon whom the ends of the systems of things have arrived.” (1Co 10:11) David, the nation’s most prominent king, became a prophetic figure of God’s Son, and God’s covenant with David for an everlasting kingdom was inherited by Jesus Christ. (Isa 9:6, 7; Eze 34:23, 24; Lu 1:32; Ac 13:32-37; Re 22:16) The various battles fought by faithful kings (usually guided and encouraged by God’s prophets) prefigured the war to be waged by God’s Son against enemies of his Kingdom, and the victories God gave them thus prefigured Christ’s victory over all of Satan’s forces, bringing deliverance to God’s people.
Many of the prophecies during this period described the reign of God’s Anointed One (Messiah, or Christ) and the blessings of his rule. Other Messianic prophecies pointed to persecution of God’s Servant and his suffering. (Compare Isa 11:1-10; 53:1-12; Ac 8:29-35.) As the apostle Peter states, the ancient prophets themselves kept “investigating what particular season or what sort of season the spirit in them was indicating concerning Christ [Messiah] when it was bearing witness beforehand about the sufferings for Christ and about the glories to follow these.” It was revealed to them that these things were to have a future fulfillment beyond their own time.
Since Christ Jesus is the One in whom all these prophecies see realization, marking them all as true, it can be seen how “the truth came to be through Jesus Christ.” “For no matter how many the promises of God are, they have become Yes by means of him.” (Joh 1:17; 2Co 1:20; compare Lu 18:31; 24:25, 26, 44-46.) Peter could rightly say of Jesus that ‘all the prophets bear witness to him.’
Purpose and Time of Fulfillment. Prophecy, whether prediction, simply inspired instruction, or reproof, served for the benefit of both those initially hearing it and those in all future periods who would put faith in God’s promises. For the original receivers, the prophecies assured them that the passing of years or centuries had not caused God to waver in his purpose, that he was holding firm to his covenant terms and promises. (Compare Ps 77:5-9; Isa 44:21; 49:14-16; Jer 50:5.) Daniel’s prophecy, for example, provided information that constituted an invaluable link between the close of the writing of the Hebrew or pre-Christian Scriptures and Messiah’s coming. Its forecast of world events, including the rise and fall of successive world powers, gave assurance to Jews living during the centuries of Persian, Greek, and Roman dominance (as well as to Christians thereafter) that there was no “blind spot” in God’s forevision, that their own times were indeed foreseen and that Jehovah’s sovereign purpose was still certain of fulfillment. It protected them against putting faith and hope in such passing world regimes with their transient power of control and enabled those faithful ones to direct their course with wisdom.
The fact that many prophecies were fulfilled in their own times convinced sincere ones of God’s power to carry out his purpose despite all opposition. It was proof of his unique Godship that he, and he alone, could foretell such events and bring them to pass. (Isa 41:21-26; 46:9-11) These prophecies also enabled them to become better acquainted with God, understanding more clearly his will and the moral standards by which he acts and judges, so that they might harmonize their lives with these.
A large number of prophecies had their initial application or fulfillment on the contemporary people, many prophecies expressing God’s judgment on fleshly Israel and surrounding nations and foretelling Israel and Judah’s overthrow and subsequent restoration. Yet these prophecies did not lose their value for later generations, as for the Christian congregation, either in the first century C.E. or in our own time. The apostle says: “For all the things that were written aforetime were written for our instruction, that through our endurance and through the comfort from the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Ro 15:4) Since God is unchangeable in his moral standards and purpose (Mal 3:6; Heb 6:17, 18), his dealings with Israel shed light on how he will deal with similar situations at any given time. Hence Jesus and his disciples were warranted in using prophetic statements applying centuries earlier as also applicable in their day. (Mt 15:7, 8; Ac 28:25-27) Other prophecies were clearly predictive, some relating specifically and uniquely to Jesus’ earthly ministry and subsequent events. (Isa 53; Da 9:24-27) For those living at the time of Messiah’s appearance, the prophecies supplied the means for identifying him and authenticating his commission and message.
After Jesus’ departure from earth, the Hebrew Scriptures and their prophecies supplemented Jesus’ teachings in supplying the vital background against which his Christian followers could view succeeding events, fit them in, and learn their meaning and significance. This gave validity and strength to their preaching and teaching, and it gave them confidence and courage as they faced opposition. (Ac 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:7-12, 24-30; 7:48-50; 13:40, 41, 47) They found in the early inspired revelations a great body of moral instruction to draw on for “teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness.” (2Ti 3:16, 17; Ro 9:6-33; 1Co 9:8-10; 10:1-22) Peter, who had had the prophecies confirmed by his seeing the transfiguration vision, said: “Consequently we have the prophetic word made more sure; and you are doing well in paying attention to it as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2Pe 1:16-19; Mt 16:28–17:9) So, the pre-Christian prophecy supplemented Jesus’ instruction and was God’s means to guide the Christian congregation in important decisions, as in regard to Gentile believers.
Prophecies also served to warn, advising when urgent action was needed. A forceful example of this is Jesus’ warning of Jerusalem’s coming destruction and the situation that would signal the time for his followers to flee from her to a place of safety. (Lu 19:41-44; 21:7-21) Similar prophetic warnings apply to Christ’s presence.
By the outpouring of the holy spirit at Pentecost, Christians were granted such miraculous gifts as prophesying and the ability to speak in tongues they had not studied. In some (but not necessarily all) cases, the gift of prophesying produced predictions, as those of Agabus (Ac 11:27, 28; 21:8-11), enabling the Christian congregation or individuals thereof to gird for certain emergencies or trials. The canonical letters of the apostles and disciples also contain inspired forecasts of the future; these warned of the coming apostasy, told the form it would take, warned of God’s judgment and the future execution thereof, and revealed doctrinal truths not before understood or amplified and clarified those already given. (Ac 20:29, 30; 1Co 15:22-28, 51-57; 1Th 4:15-18; 2Th 2:3-12; 1Ti 4:1-3; 2Ti 3:1-13; 4:3, 4; compare Jude 17-21.) The book of Revelation is filled with prophetic information enabling persons to be warned, so they can discern “the signs of the times” (Mt 16:3) and take urgent action.
However, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he shows that the miraculous gifts, including that of inspired prophesying, were due to be done away with. (1Co 13:2, 8-10) The evidence is that with the death of the apostles these gifts ceased to be transmitted and thereafter passed off the Christian scene, having served their purpose. By that time, of course, the Bible canon was complete.
Jesus’ illustrations, or parables, were similar in form to some of the allegorical pronouncements of the earlier prophets. (Compare Eze 17:1-18; 19:1-14; Mt 7:24-27; 21:33-44.) Almost all of them had some fulfillment in that time. Some basically set forth moral principles. (Mt 18:21-35; Lu 18:9-14) Others had time features that extended down to Jesus’ presence and “the conclusion of the system of things.”
Multiple fulfillment. The use made of prophecy by Jesus and his disciples shows that a predictive prophecy may have more than one fulfillment, as when Paul referred to Habakkuk’s prophecy, originally fulfilled in Babylon’s desolation of Judah, and applied it in his day. (Hab 1:5, 6; Ac 13:40, 41) Jesus showed that Daniel’s prophecy concerning “the disgusting thing that is causing desolation” was due for fulfillment in the generation then living; yet Daniel’s prophecy also connects “the disgusting thing” causing desolation with the “time of the end.” (Da 9:27; 11:31-35; Mt 24:15, 16) Biblical evidence shows that when Michael ‘stands up,’ this signifies that Jesus Christ takes action as king on behalf of Jehovah’s servants. (Da 12:1; see MICHAEL No. 1.) Jesus’ own prophecy regarding the conclusion of the system of things likewise includes mention of his coming in Kingdom power, which did not take place in the first century C.E. (Mt 24:29, 30; Lu 21:25-32) This indicates a dual fulfillment. Hence, in discussing the matter of double fulfillment of prophecy, M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia (1894, Vol. VIII, p. 635) comments: “This view of the fulfilment of prophecy seems necessary for the explanation of our Lord’s prediction on the Mount, relating at once to the fall of Jerusalem and to the end of the Christian dispensation.”
Forms of Prophecy. In addition to direct statements issued through his prophets (perhaps accompanied by symbolic acts [1Ki 11:29-31] or in allegorical form), Jehovah used other forms. Prophetic characters prefigured the Messiah, Christ Jesus. Besides David, already mentioned, these included the priest-king Melchizedek (Heb 7:15-17), the prophet Moses (Ac 3:20-22), and others. It should be noted that, with regard to prophetic characters, the individual is not to be viewed as typical or prophetic in every aspect. Thus Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish prefigured Jesus’ time in Sheol; but Jonah’s reluctance to accept his assignment and other aspects did not prefigure the course of God’s Son. Jesus spoke of himself as “something more than Solomon,” for Jesus’ wisdom and the peace of his Kingdom rule are like that of Solomon but superior to it. However, Jesus does not become spiritually delinquent as Solomon did.
Prophetic dramas were also used by God, details from the lives of individuals and nations being recorded as a pattern of future events in the outworking of Jehovah’s purpose. Paul speaks of such “a symbolic drama” involving Abraham’s two sons by Sarah and the slave girl Hagar. He shows that the two women “mean” two covenant relationships. They did not personally typify, or picture, such covenants. But in the prophetic drama those women corresponded to symbolic women who produced children under those covenants. Thus Hagar corresponded to earthly Jerusalem, which failed to accept the Deliverer to whom the Law covenant pointed and clung to that Law even after God had terminated it; earthly Jerusalem and its children were thus in slavery to the Law. On the other hand, Sarah, the free woman, corresponded to “the Jerusalem above,” God’s heavenly wifelike organization, which produces sons in accord with what was foretold in the Abrahamic covenant. (Ga 4:21-31; compare Joh 8:31-36.) The Flood of Noah’s day and the conditions precedent to it were prophetic of conditions at the time of Christ’s future presence and of the result to those rejecting God’s way.
Places were used prophetically, the city of Jerusalem on Mount Zion at times being used to represent a heavenly organization that is the “mother” of spirit-anointed Christians. (Ga 4:26) “New Jerusalem” symbolized Christ’s heavenly “bride,” made up of members of the glorified Christian congregation. (Re 21:2, 9-14; compare Eph 5:23-27, 32, 33; Re 14:1-4.) However, Jerusalem, because of the general unfaithfulness of its inhabitants, may be used in an unfavorable way as well. (Ga 4:25; compare Eze 16:1-3, 8-15; see JERUSALEM [The City’s Significance].) Other places obviously used with prophetic significance are Sodom, Egypt, Megiddo, Babylon, and the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna.
A prophetic pattern, involving objects and procedures, is found in the case of the tabernacle. The apostle shows that its equipment, functions, and sacrifices were a pattern of heavenly realities, “a typical representation and a shadow of the heavenly things.”
Testing Prophecy and Its Interpretation. In view of the activity of false prophets, John warned against believing every “inspired expression,” which is basically what prophecies are. Instead, he admonished Christians to “test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God.” (1Jo 4:1) John cites one doctrine as a means for determining divine origin of the inspired expression, namely, Christ’s having come in the flesh. Obviously, however, he was not saying that this was the sole criterion but evidently was citing an example of something currently, perhaps predominantly, in dispute then. (1Jo 4:2, 3) A vital factor is the prophecy’s harmony with God’s revealed word and will (De 13:1-5; 18:20-22), and this harmony could not be partial but must be complete for the prophecy or an interpretation of prophecy to be correct. (See PROPHET [Distinguishing the True From the False].) In the first-century Christian congregation some were granted the gift of “discernment of inspired utterances” (1Co 12:10), making possible the authentication of prophecies. Though this miraculous ability also ceased, it is reasonable that correct understanding of prophecy would still be made available by God through the congregation, particularly in the foretold “time of the end,” not miraculously, but as the result of their diligent investigation and study and comparison of prophecy with circumstances and events taking place.