Questions That Disturb You—What Should You Do?
CHRISTIANS appreciate the fact that Jehovah God and Jesus Christ are their Teachers. They know that, just as he did with ancient Israel, God leads his people progressively, according to the principle stated at Proverbs 4:18: “The path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established.”
In the process of traveling this path, basic truths are the foundation, among which truths are Jehovah’s sovereignty, his Messianic kingdom, the ransom sacrifice of Jesus Christ, earth to be made a paradise, and everlasting life for all faithful, obedient ones. Increased light of understanding constantly shines upon these great truths, clarifying different related facets. This includes sharper focus on the understanding and application of certain Scripture texts and adjustments in procedure and organizational structure of the Christian congregation. All of these add to the joy of God’s people and help them to carry on their lives and to do their work of preaching and teaching the good news with greater freedom of movement and increased spirituality.
At times, in the minds of some, doubts may arise as to something that is said. Some statement in the Watch Tower publications may not be clearly understood or fully grasped. To some, it may seem to contradict what has been said previously.
If such doubts arise in your mind, what can you do? First, be sure that you did not misunderstand what was said, or read into it something that was not there. Then, do some meditation on the matter.
“CONTEXTUAL” AND “EXTENDED” APPLICATION
A Scripture text may be quoted or cited and applied in a way that appears to contradict an application made in an earlier instance. In some cases this may be due to greater light of understanding, correcting a former view. In other cases you may be helped by considering whether the application is “contextual,” that is, whether the scripture is being discussed in the light of the context and setting. Or perhaps it is an “extended” application, that is, the principle of the text may be applied to some other circumstance.
An example of a text from which the principle is often forcefully applied is Hebrews 12:9, which reads: “We used to have fathers who were of our flesh to discipline us, and we used to give them respect. Shall we not much more subject ourselves to the Father of our spiritual life and live?”
The writer is here speaking of the “spiritual life” of the spirit-begotten brothers of Jesus Christ, who have heavenly hopes. (Heb. 12:22-24, 28) But the principle set out in this text may also be applied to the “other sheep,” who are prospective children of God, with hope of everlasting life on earth. (John 10:16; Rom. 8:21) These, too, have a “spiritual life,” inasmuch as they are living according to the direction of God’s Word and spirit alongside the spirit-begotten ones. They are not living ‘fleshly lives,’ lives devoted to pursuing “the works of the flesh.”—Rom. 7:5; 8:5-8; Gal. 5:19-21; compare 1 Corinthians 2:14.
For further illustration of this principle, consider the text at 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word, be at it urgently in favorable season, in troublesome season.” The Watchtower of November 15, 1971, pages 701-703, explained that Paul was here instructing Timothy, as an overseer in the congregation, with regard to his teaching in the congregation in Ephesus, which faced a “troublesome season,” with some trying to subvert the faith of others by teaching false doctrine, engaging in foolish questionings, and so forth. Timothy was to stay by God’s Word, not some philosophy or ideas of his own.—2 Tim. 2:14-26; 3:1-17; 4:1-5.
However, in The Watchtower of March 1, 1972, page 136, the text at 2 Timothy 4:2 is cited in support of preaching the good news to persons in the world in spite of persecution. Why this difference?
The first application is the contextual one, and expresses the force of what Paul was really saying to Timothy. The latter application is given on the principle that the preaching we do inside the congregation we also extend to the outside. If we stick to God’s Word in the congregation, and do so even when unfavorable situations arise, we also stay by God’s Word in preaching to those outside, and we see that the people outside get an opportunity to hear, whether we meet with difficulties or not.—1 Thess. 1:6.
However, we should not be indiscriminate and careless in applying Bible texts, remembering, rather, that the contextual application is the primary and basic one. If it is possible to use the text in a secondary or broader application in principle, it can add force to our presentation to point out to our hearers the basic contextual sense and to make clear that we are using the text in its secondary application, applying it only in principle.
PROPHECIES WITH MORE THAN ONE FULFILLMENT
Prophecy also may have more than one fulfillment. In all instances, prophecy spoken in olden times had meaning to the people who heard it; it served for their guidance as well as ours. Most often it had some fulfillment in that time, in many instances being fulfilled during the lifetime of that very generation. Frequently there was a second fulfillment during the time Christ was on earth or in the history of the early Christian congregation. Then, in a great number of cases, there is a larger fulfillment, spiritually or literally, in our time, or in the future.
Accordingly, in applying a passage that has prophetic import, it is good to recognize these facts. For example, at Psalm 37:10, David stated: “Just a little while longer, and the wicked one will be no more; and you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be.” For whose benefit was this written? Does it have application only in this “time of the end,” when wickedness will be destroyed forever? This would be some three thousand years after the psalm was written and was read by the people of Israel. Did these words mean nothing to those reading them except a promise for the distant future?
No. These words concerning the wicked had a meaning and message for the people then. In fact, they found a fulfillment in David’s own time. It was David’s observation and experience that the wicked, though they seemed to flourish for a while, did not last long. (Ps 37 Verses 35, 36) For this very reason he counseled, in Ps 37 verses one and two, not to be heated up because of evildoers. So he was stating a principle of life. In David’s time the “earth,” that is, the portion of the earth assigned by God to Israel, was brought under peaceful domination by David, and during his son Solomon’s rule the people had peace from wicked enemies.—Ps. 37:11; 1 Ki. 4:20, 25.
This prophetic truth or principle also finds a grander fulfillment in these “last days” of the wicked system of things, with a far more extensive cleansing of the earth in prospect, for God has expressed his purpose to clear out all wickedness from the entire earth forever through the exercise of Christ’s kingly rule.—Rev. 11:18; 19:19-21.
Another prophecy, that of Isaiah 65:17, concerning God’s creating “new heavens and a new earth,” was not proclaimed by Isaiah for the Jews merely to hear as something to be fulfilled some 2,700 years in the future. Rather, it had a first fulfillment about 200 years after it was first recorded, when the exiled Israelites were restored to Jerusalem. A new ruling body provided by Jehovah with Zerubbabel as governor and Joshua as high priest constituted “new heavens” and the land of Judah was repopulated with an organized people, constituting a “new earth.” In this restoration, no more did an enemy like Nebuchadnezzar come in to kill infants and young children, and men lived their normal life-span. They built houses and planted vineyards in security, without fear that the enemy would again come in and desolate their land as the Babylonians had done in 607 B.C.E. (Isa. 65:20-22) This was a meaningful fulfillment for those Israelites back there. They could act with faith on Isaiah’s prophecy to their own good.
God loved his people back there and remembered them in their captive state in Babylon. He acted to restore them from captivity and to bless them in their own land. What occurred with them is said by the apostle Paul to be pictorial of greater things. (1 Cor. 10:11) Consequently we know that in God’s great love for the Christian congregation, ‘spiritual Israel,’ he would deliver them from their enemies. In the first century he delivered a remnant of faithful Jews, bringing them into the Christian congregation that was established at Pentecost. (John 8:31-36; Acts 2:41, 47) Likewise, in these “last days,” God has shown the same love in restoring spiritual Israel from captivity to Babylon the Great, the world empire of false religion. He has progressively restored to them the truths and practices of the early Christian congregation and has prospered them in releasing others from religious bondage. Thus there has been a threefold fulfillment of Bible prophecy concerning deliverance of Jehovah’s people from Babylon.
The apostle Peter corroborates this understanding that there is more than one fulfillment when he makes a future application of the prophecy of Isaiah 65:17, in connection with Christ’s rule. Writing to the spiritual Israel of his day, Peter says: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.” (2 Pet. 3:13) Also the book of Revelation, written to spiritual Israel about 96 C.E., envisions “a new heaven and a new earth” for mankind’s benefit, security and blessing in God’s new order under Christ’s Kingdom rule.—Rev. 21:1-4.
Consequently, if we have difficulty in understanding an explanation of a prophecy as it is set forth in the Watch Tower publications, the thing to do is to think more deeply. Consider the possibility of more than one fulfillment. Often it greatly strengthens our faith when we read of God’s fulfilling a prophecy toward his people back there. We have even stronger assurance that he can and will carry out the greater fulfillment upon his people today.
Again, if we wonder about the application of a Scripture text, consider the context of that scripture, and also ask, ‘Is the usage here merely an application of its principle extended beyond the immediate contextual use of the scripture?’
But what about changes in viewpoint that may occasionally occur? This is a point to be discussed in the next article.