Understanding Bible Prophecy
Seventh-day Adventists have emphasized Bible prophecy from the beginning. We have our roots in the study of God’s Word, especially the prophecies that have to do with the future.
So why does prophecy matter so much to us?
Prophecy is one way that God communicates with His people, providing them with guidance and direction for different times in history. Correctly understanding and applying it is important for a healthy spiritual experience. Above all, it helps us to know Jesus more deeply so that we can be prepared for His return.
On this page, we’ll look at the basics:
- What is prophecy?
- Have any Bible prophecies been fulfilled?
- What are the different types of prophecies?
- What is the purpose of Bible prophecy?
- How can we apply it to our daily lives?
- Why does prophecy mean so much to Adventists?
Let’s begin with a definition.
What is prophecy?
In the Bible, prophecy simply refers to any communication of God’s will to humanity through a human being. The title of “prophet” refers to the person who receives and communicates this message from God.
Prophecies can address:
Things that happened in the past
In the Bible, God gave these types of prophecies to help the Jewish people learn from their history—both the good and the bad.
They reminded God’s followers of what He had taught them in ancient times. And if the people weren’t following these teachings, the prophets shared messages to point them in the right direction—living according to the principles God gave them for their good.
An example of this is found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
Because God’s people had turned from Him, He could no longer protect them, and they were facing impending destruction. Jeremiah warned them of this destruction and counseled them to return to the “old paths”—God’s ways—as their only means of escape:
“Thus says the Lord, ‘stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls’” (Jeremiah 6:16, NKJV).
Moses also had to bring messages from God to the Israelites many times while leading them to the promised land of Canaan. If they started to doubt or become overwhelmed with fear, he would remind them of what God had done for them (Exodus 15–17), and God would provide for them again.
Present or contemporary issues
God also spoke to His people through prophets about things that were happening currently. Sometimes, He revealed unknown things that were going on or called people’s attention to appropriate details.
Like during King Josiah’s religious reforms.
When Hilkiah the priest discovered “the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord,” King Josiah sought counsel from a prophetess named Huldah. The prophetess gave a straight answer from God concerning the fate of Judah, but she also encouraged the king’s efforts to bring about positive change (2 Chronicles 34:14–28, NKJV).
Another example is when King Hezekiah needed direction on how to deal with Assyria’s threat to invade Judah. Through the prophet Isaiah, God assured him of protection (Isaiah 37).
And there’s when King David committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers. When he tried to cover it up by having the soldier killed in battle, God sent David a prophet, too.
The prophet Nathan tactfully led the king to see the seriousness of the sin he’d gotten into. And to recognize his need to confess and ask God for forgiveness (2 Samuel 11–12).
Things that would happen in the future
Whenever we hear of prophecy, we tend to associate it with revelations of what will happen in the future.
And there’s a good reason behind this reflex.
The Bible is filled with messages from prophets who spoke of things that would happen in the near or distant future.
Here are examples of different future prophecies:
- The future of individuals
- Messianic prophecies (about Jesus)
- The future of Israel as a nation
- What will happen to God’s people in future generations
- World events
- End times and the second coming of Christ
- Events after His second coming, including the millennial kingdom and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth
And the best part is that many of these prophecies happened exactly as the prophets said they would.
Knowing this helps us to trust the Holy Bible as God’s true Word. And to trust that prophecies that haven’t been fulfilled yet will also happen as predicted.
Have any Bible prophecies been fulfilled?
Many Bible prophecies have already been fulfilled in the past, are being fulfilled today, or will be fulfilled soon.
Let’s look at some examples of each of these categories.
Prophecies that have been fulfilled already
|The captivity of the Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus||Genesis 15:13||Exodus 12:40–41|
|Prophecy about Cyrus and the end of Babylonian captivity||Isaiah 45:1–5; Jeremiah 25:11–12; 29:10||Daniel 1:21; 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:21–23|
|Prophecies about the first coming of the Messiah (Jesus)|| Micah 5:2
Isaiah 53:5–12; Psalm 22:16
| Matthew 2:4–6
Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:27
Matthew 27:32–56; Mark 15:21–41
The captivity of the Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus
Prediction: Genesis 15:13
Fulfillment: Exodus 12:40–41
Prophecy about Cyrus and the end of Babylonian captivity
Prediction: Isaiah 45:1–5; Jeremiah 25:11–12; 29:10
Fulfillment: Daniel 1:21; Daniel 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:21–23
Prophecies about the first coming of the Messiah (Jesus)
Prediction: Micah 5:2; Isaiah 7:14; Zechariah 12:10; Isaiah 53:5–12; Psalm 22:16
Fulfillment: Matthew 2:4–6; Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:27; John 19:34; Matthew 27:32–56; Mark 15:21–41
Prophecies that are being fulfilled today
The signs of Jesus’ second coming predicted in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are examples of prophecies being fulfilled right before our eyes.
We see wars in many parts of the world, increased natural disasters, false prophets and self-proclaimed messiahs, persecution of believers, betrayal and a waning sense of community, famines and diseases, moral decay, and a wide and rapid spread of the gospel.
All these are things that Jesus said would happen before His return.
Prophecies that will be fulfilled in the end times
These prophecies foretell what will happen before, during, and after Jesus’ return.
They include the following:
|The mark of the beast||Revelation 13:16–17|
|Plagues just before the Second Coming||Revelation 15–16|
|The great tribulation||Daniel 12:1; Matthew 24:21; Revelation 7:14|
|The Second Coming||John 14:1–3; Acts 1:9–11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Titus 2:13; Revelation 1:7; 14:14–16|
|The millennium||Jeremiah 4:23–26; Malachi 4:1; Revelation 20:1–10|
|The final judgment||Malachi 4:1; 1 Corinthians 6:2–3; Revelation 20:11–15|
|The new earth||Revelation 21–22:5|
The mark of the beast
Prediction: Revelation 13:16–17
Plagues just before the Second Coming
Prediction: Revelation 15–16
The great tribulation
Prediction: Daniel 12:1; Matthew 24:21; Revelation 7:14
The Second Coming
Prediction: John 14:1–3; Acts 1:9–11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Titus 2:13; Revelation 1:7; 14:14–16
Prediction: Jeremiah 4:23–26; Malachi 4:1; Revelation 20:1–10
The final judgment
Prediction: Malachi 4:1; 1 Corinthians 6:2–3; Revelation 20:11–15
The new earth
Prediction: Revelation 21–22:5
For a deeper understanding of how various prophecies have been fulfilled, are fulfilling, and will be fulfilled, the book The Great Controversy is an excellent resource.
Now, let’s look at different types of prophecies.
What are the different types of Bible prophecies?
Bible prophecies fall into two main categories: general prophecies and apocalyptic prophecies. General prophecies include those about God’s people and are often conditional on their actions. The language of the predictions is literal and direct. Apocalyptic prophecies, on the other hand, are symbolic.
These categories help us to interpret biblical prophecy and to understand why God did or didn’t fulfill some prophecies.
We’ll explore them in a little more depth:
Many general prophecies had to do with the nation of Israel or other surrounding nations. They were often conditional, meaning their fulfillment depended on the people obeying God’s commands.
God Himself laid out this principle through the prophet Jeremiah when He said:
“The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it” (Jeremiah 18:7–10, NKJV).
You’ll find a great example of this in the story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:1–10).
Nineveh was a very immoral city, and God had no choice but to destroy it if the people would not admit their wrongs and change their ways. But when Jonah warned them of their danger, they humbled themselves and repented.
Jonah 3:10 tells us that “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (NKJV).
A subcategory of general prophecy is eschatological prophecy, meaning prophecies about end-time events (eschatology refers to the study of the end times). They foretell what will happen before Jesus comes.
They are not conditional like other general prophecies, though.
Many eschatological prophecies have to do with important milestones in the plan of salvation and are bound to happen whenever they fit into the big picture of that plan. Humans can’t do anything to stop or change these prophecies.
Good examples include prophecies about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), His death on the cross (Daniel 9:26), and the signs of His second coming (Matthew 24).
Apocalyptic prophecies also foreshadow events in the end times, but they use symbolic rather than direct and literal language. They are always unconditional, meaning they aren’t based on what God’s people do or don’t do.
We find these kinds of prophecies in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.
Daniel 7 and Revelation 13 speak of beasts with horns and crowns. And of a dragon and another beast that is worshiped. Revelation 17 talks of a woman sitting on a beast. All these represent different events and dynamics of the last days of earth’s history and how they affect God’s people.
Sometimes, the Bible gives the interpretation for these symbols, but at other times, we can use historical and cultural sources to help us connect the dots.
A great way to begin understanding end-times prophecy is to use a Bible study guide that helps you in your journey of understanding the ins and outs of these symbols. You’ll get your questions answered about specifics related to the last days, such as whether there will be a secret rapture.
But even before you do that, you may want to understand the reason for studying these unique passages of the Bible.
What is the purpose of Bible prophecy?
While many prophecies tell about the future, that is not the main goal of prophecy. Rather, it’s to show us who God is, give us hope, and connect us to His will.
Prophecy provides information that deepens faith and inspires appropriate action.
Let’s break it down:
1. It reveals Jesus and His plan for us
The book of Revelation highlights this in its introduction:
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place” (Revelation 1:1, NKJV).
The prophecies reveal Jesus and the message that Jesus wants to tell His people.
Many times throughout Revelation (27 times to be exact!), Jesus is symbolized as a lamb.1
And, the book of Daniel presents Jesus as the Messiah who was “cut off” for His people and “the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 9:26; Daniel 7:13, NKJV).
2. It gives patience and hope in difficult situations
When the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, they became discouraged and wondered when they’d be able to return to their land.
Then God sent the prophet Jeremiah to them with an encouraging message in Jeremiah 29. He told them that though they had 70 years in Babylon, they should not give up. In the end, He would bring them back to their land.
His word for them was:
“I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NKJV).
3. It leads to a change of heart
The book of Daniel has a good example of this.
In chapter 4, King Nebuchadnezzar received a prophecy that called him to “break off [his] sins by being righteous, and [his] iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” (Daniel 4:27, NKJV).
Through the giving and fulfilling of that prophecy, God helped Nebuchadnezzar realize who God really is and let go of his pride (Daniel 4:37).
4. It warns people of the consequences of sin
The story of Jonah and the city of Nineveh, which we looked at earlier, highlights this purpose (Jonah 3). Because the people repented, they were spared from experiencing the consequences of the immoral lives they had chosen to live.
5. It reveals information or gives wisdom
In some situations in the Bible, people were confronted with strange dreams, confusing messages, or puzzling situations. God communicated the meanings of these things to His prophets so they could offer guidance to His people or demonstrate His power to those who didn’t know Him.
Let’s go back to the book of Daniel.
Daniel was a Hebrew captive in Babylon who was trained to serve in the king’s court. Due to his integrity and God-given wisdom, the king favored him. When King Nebuchadnezzar had a troubling dream, and none of his usual “wise men” could figure out what it was, Daniel came forward.
God gave Daniel the dream and its interpretation, allowing the king to witness the power of God (Daniel 2).
6. It encourages preparation for the future
One such prophecy was given to the pharaoh of Egypt when Joseph was living there. God told Joseph to instruct Pharaoh to store food for a famine that would come years later (Genesis 41). The whole nation survived the famine as a result.
7. It provides direction/insight about a situation
We find an instance of this purpose of prophecy in the experience of the people of Judah after they returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity.
Because of many challenges in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple, they became discouraged and stopped working. God sent them the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage them to rise to action—and to point them to the hope of the Messiah (Ezra 5:1).
How can we apply prophecy to our daily lives?
The prophetic words of the Bible help us deepen our relationship with God and trust Him more, while also encouraging us to live in expectation of Jesus’ Second Coming.
As we see God’s love for His people and how His plan is fulfilled throughout history, our confidence in Him grows. We can’t help but want to know someone whose Word is so trustworthy!
As we read about the prophecies God gave to His people in the Old Testament, we can learn from the mistakes of those who refused to listen to the warnings.
The prophecies of the future then encourage us to take these warnings and lessons to heart so we can prepare for the second coming.
Peter talks about this in his epistle:
“Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless…since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:14–17, NKJV)
Apart from preparing ourselves for Jesus’ coming, we can help others be ready too.
By sharing the gospel and the truths we know with them.
Jesus prophesied that this would be one of the signs of the end.
He said that this “gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, NKJV).
The spread of the gospel is the one prophesied sign that counters the other troubling ones.
Because it brings hope in despair.
It inspires love in place of hatred.
It stirs us to reach out to others.
In a world of pain and death, it offers peace and eternal life to anyone who will accept it (John 3:16).
Sharing the gospel allows us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Something eternal. Something wonderful.
And you don’t have to be a pastor or Bible scholar to do this. The Holy Spirit will help you share what you have learned so far. And your experience in knowing Jesus as your savior and friend is a good place to start.
Why does prophecy mean so much to Adventists?
Adventists treasure the study of Bible prophecy for a few key reasons:
- It led to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
- It helps us understand God’s loving character
- It gives us a unique perspective on life
Let’s look into each of these reasons.
1. It led to the formation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church
Back in the early 1800s, some Christian believers saw that Bible prophecies pointed to Jesus’ soon return.
This was unlike the popular belief at the time, which regarded the Second Coming as a metaphorical or purely spiritual event (as opposed to physical or literal). For those that did believe it would happen, they expected it to be in the very, very distant future.
So after this realization, these Christians began preaching and telling others about the soon Second Coming. Many more began studying their Bibles rather than just listening to church preachers talk about it.
This revival developed into the Millerite Movement in the US in the 1830s.
Several influential people in this movement mistakenly attempted to set a date for the Second Coming; they had somehow missed the Bible’s warning against doing so. The result was the Great Disappointment in 1844 when Jesus didn’t return.
But instead of losing their faith, a handful of these fervent Bible students went back to studying the prophecies. And that’s how they discovered where they went wrong in their interpretation of Daniel 8:14.
They continued with these Bible studies, which led them to learn even more wonderful truths. Many of these truths—such as Jesus’ ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the seventh-day Sabbath—were not commonly studied or referenced in the churches of the time, so they became distinguishing doctrines of Adventism.
Even today, Adventists feel that studying prophecy is a key component of a healthy spiritual life.
2. It helps us understand God’s loving character
Through prophecy, we see how in His love for us, God still guides and directs events that happen in the world.
We can be encouraged that even if the world is in chaos around us, He has a plan for each of us. And we can rest in the assurance that in the end, Jesus will be the victor.
3. It gives us a unique perspective on life
When we study Bible prophecy, we get a glimpse of the bigger picture of life—both for our personal lives and for the events of world history.
Prophecy pulls back the curtain for us to see that things are not always what they appear to be. Often, the awful or confusing things happening in the world pale in comparison to how God will one day make everything right.
And it reminds us that spiritual influences are working behind the scenes.
We can hold onto the assurance that God is doing everything for our good and our salvation. He‘s there to protect us from danger and encourage us in safe paths.
That’s why the topic of Bible prophecy doesn’t have to make us afraid. Instead, we can find profound comfort in knowing that whatever mess this world gets into, God will always stay with us, and He will prevail in the end.
Learn more about the prophets who gave these Bible prophecies.
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